Archive for April 2011
Having drunk a pint of beer at luncheon—beer is a sedative to the brain, and my afternoons are the least intellectual portion of my life—I would go out for a walk of two or three hours. As I went along, thinking of nothing in particular, only looking at things around me and following the progress of the seasons, there would flow into my mind, with sudden and unaccountable emotion, sometimes a line or two of verse, sometimes a whole stanza at once, accompanied, not preceded, by a vague notion of the poem which they were destined to form part of. Then there would usually be a lull of an hour or so, then perhaps the spring would bubble up again. I say bubble up, because, so far as I could make out, the source of the suggestions thus proffered to the brain was an abyss which I have already had occasion to mention, the pit of the stomach. When I got home I wrote them down, leaving gaps, and hoping that further inspiration might be forthcoming another day. Sometimes it was, if I took my walks in a receptive and expectant frame of mind, but sometimes the poem had to be taken in hand and completed by the brain, which was apt to be a matter of trouble and anxiety, involving trial and disappointment, and sometimes ending in failure. I happen to remember distinctly the genesis of the piece which stands last in my first volume. Two of the stanzas, I do not say which, came into my head, just as they are printed, while I was crossing the corner of Hampstead Heath between the Spaniard’s Inn and the footpath to Temple Fortune. A third stanza came with a little coaxing after tea. One more was needed, but it did not come: I had to turn to and compose it myself, and that was a laborious business. I wrote it thirteen times, and it was more than a twelvemonth before I got it right.
Aside from my author photos and a certain royal wedding—which, yes, I got up at five this morning to watch with my wife, who wore a pink tiara to celebrate—it’s been an eventful week. On Wednesday, my editor finally sent me the copy-edited manuscript of The Icon Thief, which I’m supposed to review and return by May 11. At first glance, the changes all seem fairly straightforward—devoted mostly to changing “further” to “farther” and correcting my inconsistent use of the word “towards”—but I haven’t had a chance to really go through it yet. Still, it’s fun looking at the style sheet for the novel, with its long list of random proper names and foreign phrases (“Roger Casement,” tzaddikim, Dip Pepl). And I hope to write more about the copy-editing process in weeks to come.
More importantly, I’ve been informed that the publication of The Icon Thief has been pushed back two months to April 2012, from its original release date of February. Evidently it’s not uncommon for publication dates to be reshuffled like this, and my editor seems to think that this will be the last such change. The book is still in a good slot—it’s Signet’s lead title for the month—and the revised timeline gives us an extra couple of months to properly market the novel. All the same, it’s a little nerve-wracking. But looking at the calendar of summer movie releases, I’m oddly tickled to see that the novel will be coming out a week or two before Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. Feeling nervous, Joss?
When one writes a novel about grown people, he knows exactly where to stop—that is, with a marriage; but when he writes of juveniles, he must stop where he best can.
—Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Two weeks ago, in what felt like an important milestone, I finally had an author photograph taken for The Icon Thief. The photographer, Brian Kinyon, is a very smart and talented guy from Oak Park who took the pictures for my own wedding, and whom I knew could be counted upon to make me look fairly presentable. Before the photo shoot, I half-seriously sent him a link to the website of Marion Ettlinger, generally considered to be the Rembrandt of author headshots. Brian said that he loved Ettinger, but cautioned me that I shouldn’t expect to look quite like her picture of Truman Capote. I agreed. After all, that’s a face you need to earn.
We began with some informal shots around the house, which my wife insisted we get. In my favorite photo, I’m holding my Pantone mug, which I bought at the Art Institute here in Chicago. (The color of the mug is Columbia blue, or Pantone 292, which should ring a bell to fans of the Magnetic Fields.) This mug, which has contained something like two thousand cups of green tea over the past couple of years, has been my constant companion, and I’m glad it’s in this shot. And among the books visible on the shelf behind me is Illuminatus! by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, to which I owe a great deal. The Phantom Tollbooth is also there. So while I don’t think this picture is going to be my official photo, I’m glad to have it.
With that, I changed into my official suspense novelist’s uniform, mandated by law, which consists of a blazer, dress shirt, and dark jeans. (A turtleneck, I’m relieved to say, is optional. But have you ever seen a thriller writer wear anything else?) It was a nice day, so Brian and I went out to explore my beautiful neighborhood of North Center, heading up toward Lincoln Square. We took shots at the Sulzer Regional public library, at Cafeneo coffee shop, where Brian used to hang out when he lived in this area, and under the El tracks, which is the picture I’ve ultimately chosen. (“The steel girders make you look like a tough thriller writer!” my wife said.)
All in all, we took more than nine hundred shots, of which Brian ultimately sent me close to two hundred. And although I reserve the right to change my mind, I’m pleased by the one I’ve chosen. This is pretty much how I look, at least on a good day, and I’m grateful to Brian for doing such an inspired and professional job. The result, greatly reduced, will probably end up on the inside back cover of my novel, my publisher’s website, and various other places. And hopefully I’ll still look more or less the same when the novel comes out in April 2012, recently pushed back two months from its original date of February. (But that’s a story for another day.)
Michael Chabon’s wonderful appreciation of The Phantom Tollbooth in the New York Review of Books puts me gratefully in mind of one of my own favorite novels, a book that I read and loved as a child but didn’t fully appreciate until picking it up again a few years ago. As a kid, you respond most immediately to the surface pleasures of Norton Juster’s great book: the puns, the absurd characters and situations, the seemingly effortless skill in storytelling, and, not least of all, Jules Feiffer’s remarkable illustrations. It’s only much later that you realize that this book of amiable nonsense is actually an instruction manual on how to be alive, and in particular on how to be a real grownup.
Most works of art are gloriously useless, but The Phantom Tollbooth is one of those rare novels, like In Search of Lost Time, that is both a masterpiece and full of incredibly useful advice. Juster doesn’t simply put Milo in the Doldrums, for instance, but gets him out as well. How? By thinking. He demonstrates how easy it is to jump to Conclusions, and that you can only get back with a long swim in the Sea of Knowledge, from which you emerge perfectly dry. He tells you how to deal with the Senses Takers of the world, whose forms and questions can drain you of your sense of purpose, duty, and proportion—but not if you keep your sense of humor. Through my namesake, Alec Bings, he reminds you to always look at the world from different points of view. And it’s a miniature symposium, of course, on the joys of words, numbers, colors, and music.
But the greatest episode in the novel, and one that you can only truly understand after you’ve tried to be a grownup for a while, is the story of the Terrible Trivium. Reading this scene again a few years back, after I’d quit my old job and was trying to make a life for myself as a writer, was a jawdropping experience. In the Mountains of Ignorance, Milo and his friends encounter an elegantly dressed gentleman without a face, who charmingly asks them to complete a few simple tasks—moving an enormous pile of sand with a pair of tweezers, emptying a well with an eyedropper, digging a hole through a cliff with a needle. They get contentedly to work, and it’s only after hours have passed, and Milo calculates that they won’t be done for another eight hundred years, that the awful truth about the stranger emerges:
“Quite correct!” he shrieked triumphantly. “I am the Terrible Trivium, demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit.”
And then he explains, whispering softly:
“Now do come and stay with me. We’ll have so much fun together. There are things to fill and things to empty, things to take away and things to bring back, things to pick up and things to put down, and besides all that we have pencils to sharpen, holes to dig, nails to straighten, stamps to lick, and ever so much more. Why, if you stay here, you’ll never have to think again—and with a little practice you can become a monster of habit, too.”
Needless to say, Milo and his friends escape—but it took me years to make my escape as well, and as we all know, the Terrible Trivium is always lurking nearby, ready to snatch us up. It’s for that reason that I try to reread The Phantom Tollbooth every couple of years, if only as a reminder that the world is full of books and ideas and art and music, that I have all the tools I need to be a real human being, and that as much as I’d like to live in Juster’s world—which is the greatest children’s book of the twentieth century—there’s just so much to do right here.
As a bonus, here’s the map I drew for my wedding day, inspired by Jules Feiffer’s beautiful endpapers:
Looking back at “Kawataro,” I’m impressed by how quickly it all came together. Although the initial idea occurred to me somewhat earlier, I didn’t start researching it in earnest until April 12 of last year, which was a Monday. I spent the next few days reading and brainstorming, finished an outline on Friday, and began writing the story the following week. The first draft was finished by April 23, and by April 26—exactly one year ago—I had a revised version that changed very little before its final publication. All in all, then, the research, writing, and revision of “Kawataro” took about two weeks, followed by a period of almost a year before it saw the light of day, which is pretty typical of the magazine publication cycle. (“The Boneless One,” which is coming out this fall, will have taken almost three and a half years from conception to publication.)
Once I had the initial version, the revision of “Kawataro” was fairly painless. While some stories continue to evolve dramatically until the final draft—”The Boneless One,” for instance, has an entirely different ending from the version that I originally sent to Analog—the revision of “Kawataro” was just a matter of tightening the story and polishing the prose, or at least as much as could be done in three or four days. The first, incredibly messy draft was 13,300 words long, which I cut down to 10,700 very quickly, thus obeying Stephen King’s dictum by editing the first version by almost 20%. In retrospect, I wish I’d had another couple of days to polish the draft, but by that point I had to get back to work on The Icon Thief, so I had no choice but to send the story out as it was.
The first magazine to see “Kawataro” was Fantasy & Science Fiction, which rejected it. (I still haven’t been published there.) I honestly can’t remember why they turned it down, and while I probably have the rejection slip lying around here somewhere, it’s currently buried under countless other piles of junk. Analog was the next stop. (I would have sent it there first, but they already had another story of mine under consideration, and they don’t like it when you submit more than one story at a time.) I sent the manuscript off on July 17, and my first indication that they wanted to take it was three months later, when managing editor Trevor Quachri emailed to ask for a Word file of the story. At first, I thought that the acceptance letter had been lost in the mail, but it turns out that Stanley Schmidt liked it enough to accept it without corrections. Which is great—it’s the first and only time Analog has accepted a story of mine without changes—although to this day I’m not entirely sure what Stan thinks of it.
And what do I think of “Kawataro” today? Reading it over again, I couldn’t help but notice places where I would have revised the story if I’d had more time—some of the transitions between scenes, for instance, aren’t great—but all in all, I’m pleased by it. The writing is generally good, the setting is spooky and atmospheric, and overall, it’s a tight, compelling story. (My sister-in-law paid me the ultimate compliment by saying that she found it unsettling enough that she had to remind herself that it was only a story I’d written—which is basically the nicest thing a writer can hear.) And the various elements come together in a way that seems seamless, at least to my eyes. After enough time has passed, a story begins to assume a life of its own, until even the author has trouble remembering where all the pieces came from. As a result, I’ve really enjoyed reconstructing the process over the past few days, and hope that you’ve found it interesting as well.
Luck, if there is such a thing, is either going to favor everyone equally or going to exhibit a preference for the prepared. When I was young, I had a teacher who said that everyone, in the course of a twenty-year career, was going to get the same breaks—some at the beginning, some at the end. I second and endorse his observation as true. “Luck,” in one’s business dealings, and “talent,” its equivalent onstage, seem to reward those with an active and practicable philosophy.
—David Mamet, True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor
In his nice little book Writing the Novel, Lawrence Block, while describing how he incorporates all kinds of disparate elements into his fiction, uses an image for the creative process that I’ve always thought was particularly appropriate:
I may borrow a bit of physical description, for example, or a mannerism, or an oddity of speech. I may take an incident in the life of someone I know and use it as an item of background data in the life of one of my characters. Little touches of this sort get threaded into my characters much as bits of ribbon and cloth are woven into a songbird’s nest—for color, to tighten things up, and because they caught my eye and seemed to belong there.
Most writers, I imagine, can relate to this. As carefully as any novel or story may be planned, many of its constituent parts will end up being the result of chance, impulse, or random inspiration. “Kawataro” is no exception. Although what I’ve described so far might sound like a fairly rational process, that rationality, if it exists at all, occurs mostly in the intermediate planning stage. When it comes to the details of the novel itself—the characters, the scenes, the small touches that make a story live—the process is much more intuitive, and the results can take even the author by surprise.
The backgrounds of the characters in “Kawataro,” for instance, were a combination of pragmatism and personal inclination. For my viewpoint character, Hakaru, I had a particular type in mind: a smart, observant outsider, but not a scientist, which would allow me to explain certain concepts to the reader in a way that was hopefully unobtrusive. I’ve used the figure of a journalist in a number of stories (including the upcoming “Warning Sign” and “The Boneless One”), partly because I’m married to one, but also because it’s a job that involves asking questions and going into unusual places, which is useful from a storytelling point of view. For a change of pace, I decided to have Hakaru (named, incidentally, for this man) be a videographer with a research background. I knew that projects like the one I was describing were usually videotaped, so he had a good reason for being there. Plus I’ve done a lot of video production myself, so I could easily describe his work if necessary (although it ended up not entering the story at all).
My other main character, Dr. Nakaya, was a bit more determined by the plot I had already sketched out. She had to be a scientist involved in the study of language formation among the burakumin of my fictional village. At some point, it occurred to me that she might also be a burakumin herself. Once these details had been established, her character quickly fell into place: intelligent, slightly severe, but emotionally involved with the predicament of these villagers in ways that were only gradually revealed. As for the other characters, they were mostly functional types—a few fell into the category of characters, familiar from The X-Files, destined only to be victims—but I tried to invest them with at least some specificity. (For some reason, I love Miyamoto’s pink shirt, which is inspired by a similar shirt worn by a figure in The Cove.) And the three sinister children at the heart of the story were clearly rooted in my memories of spooky kids from The Grudge and similar movies, with one of them wearing a red raincoat that was my homage to Don’t Look Now. (It’s an homage that would seem overly obvious in a straight horror movie, but which works pretty well in a different genre.)
Now that I had a general plot and a cast of characters, all that remained was to fill out the story itself. Many of the scenes were dictated by the shape of the conventional story I’d chosen: an outsider arrives in a small town, meets the locals, is confronted with violent and seemingly supernatural events, and finally discovers a rational explanation. In the details, though, I was free to indulge myself. The scene in which a little girl with a bouncing ball watches Dr. Nakaya argue with Miyamoto, then later implicates her in his murder, was a straight homage to The Third Man. Many of the visual details of the story—the rain, the figure in the woods, the children’s drawings unexpectedly revealing a monster—were taken from the vocabulary of horror movies. The layout of my imaginary village determined the beats of the chase scenes. And the image of the dead innkeeper, folded up like a frog, came from a dream I had over ten years ago, which I was glad to finally use here.
In the end, then, I had a story constructed from many dissimilar elements—an article in a science magazine, a Japanese legend, a few character ideas, memories of favorite movies, even dreams—which all came together, I hope, in a seamless and inevitable way. Tomorrow, I’ll wind up the discussion by talking a bit about the revision and submission process, and how I feel about the story that resulted. (For other installments in this series, please see here, here, and here.)
Neanderthal man listened to stories, if we may judge by the shape of his skull. The primitive audience was an audience of shock-heads, gasping around the campfire, fatigued with contending against the mammoth or woolly-rhinoceros, and only kept awake by suspense. What would happen next? The novelist droned on, and as soon as the audience guessed what happened next, they either fell asleep or killed him.
Like an old man, I would come up out of a Seconal stupor with four or five times the normal dose in my veins, and drop into a chair to sit for hours…I would sit in a chair and watch a baseball game on television, or get up and go out in the heat to a drugstore for a sandwich and malted—it was my outing for the day: the walk would feel like a patrol in a tropical sun, and it was two blocks, no more. When I came back, I would lie down, my head would lose the outer wrappings of sedation, and with a crumb of Benzedrine, the first snake or two of thought would wind through my brain. I would go for some coffee—it was a trip to the kitchen, but when I came back I would have a scratchboard and pencil in hand. Watching some afternoon horror on television, the boredom of the performers coming through their tense hilarities with a bleakness to match my own, I would pick up the board, wait for the first sentence—like all working addicts I had come to an old man’s fine sense of inner timing—and then slowly, but picking up speed, the actions of the drugs hovering into collaboration like two ships passing in view of one another, I would work for an hour, not well but not badly either…Then my mind would wear out, and new work was done for the day. I would sit around, watch more television and try to rest my dulled mind, but by evening a riot of bad nerves was on me again, and at two in the morning I’d be having the manly debate of whether to try sleep with two double capsules, or settle again for my need of three.
I find it very difficult to write if I don’t know I shall have several days absolutely clear. All visits, all intrusions, all daily duties become irksome. This is during the first draft. I wrote the first draft of The Collector in under a month; sometimes ten thousand words a day. Of course a lot of it was poorly written and had to be endlessly amended and revised. First-draft and revision writing are so different they hardly seem to belong to the same activity. I never do any “research” until the first draft is finished; all that matters to begin with is the flow, the story, the narrating. Research material then is like swimming in a strait-jacket.
Note: As before, spoilers for my novelette “Kawataro” follow.
Audiences dislike formulas for a reason. There are few things more depressing than realizing you’re about to sit through a movie or TV episode that you’ve seen, in various forms, a thousand times before. (See: almost every recent episode of Glee.) But there are also times when, like it or not, formulas can be useful. Formulas are really just story structures that have proven effective over time. And a good formula, if not relied upon exclusively, can provide a narrative line on which the writer can hang more interesting things—character, atmosphere, information—while trusting that a classic story form will hopefully keep the reader engaged. For “Kawataro,” then, after deciding on the basic scientific story, I decided to structure the plot itself around one of my favorite science fiction conventions. In X-Files parlance, this was going to be a Monster of the Week.
It’s important to remember that the original premise of “Kawataro” could have been used as the basis for any number of stories. The primary elements were an isolated Japanese village, a community of deaf burakumin, and a genetic syndrome that would be revealed only at the end of the story. I could have assembled these pieces in all kinds of ways. “Kawataro” could have been a love story, with the heroine falling for one of her patients and trying to figure out why he was growing weak; it could have been a straight adventure, with a team of scientists searching for a remote village of the deaf; it even could have been a simple medical mystery, with the story dryly following the main character as she tested and rejected various hypotheses. (I’ve seen a lot of stories like this in Analog.) For whatever reason, though—perhaps because I’d been attracted by the narrative possibilities of myxedema madness—the idea that seized my attention was something closer to horror, verging on a ghost story, which meant that I almost certainly needed a creature to serve as a red herring.
So what would this creature look like? As opposed to the early stages of the process, where I could transfer the setting from Israel to Japan without batting an eye, by now, I was operating under severe constraints—which, as I’ve said before, is where creative breakthroughs usually occur. My creature had to be Japanese. It had to be a part of local folklore. It had to be capable of driving the plot forward, probably through a series of killings. And it had to be adequately explained by the science I’d cooked up so far. It seemed to me, then, that the ideal creature was a sort of Japanese vampire. And after I’d poked around online for a bit, it didn’t take long to come up with the figure of the kappa, or kawataro, which fit my purposes admirably: it worked for the setting, it was suitably mysterious, and best of all, its traditional description was startlingly similar to the symptoms of extreme hypothyroidism. (This is the sort of serendipity, familiar to all writers, that tells you that you’re on the right track.)
At this point, the major elements of the plot had fallen into place: a series of mysterious killings in a Japanese village, blamed on the figure of the kawataro, but later revealed to be something else entirely. (I called my creature a kawataro, instead of kappa, by the way, because I preferred the sound of it and because the literal meaning of kawataro—”river boy,” as opposed to kappa, “river child”—served as a clue to the reader.) I was pretty happy when I arrived at this narrative structure, because I knew that the device of periodic killings, while familiar, would serve to hold the reader’s attention and allow me to deliver a lot of atmosphere and suspense. I also knew that this was a story I could write, that would engage me, and that I could probably put together in publishable form in less than two weeks. (The knowledge that a story is squarely in one’s wheelhouse means a lot, especially when the really hard work is about to begin.)
The next step was to drill deeper. Although I only had a few days allocated to pure research, it was still enough time for me to quickly read a couple of books on Japanese villages, a very useful New Yorker article, and the wonderful book Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings, which I’d been meaning to read anyway. I rewatched The Cove, one of my favorite recent documentaries, taking notes on setting and atmosphere. Some articles on the burakumin gave me the idea of structuring the conflict in the early part of the story around the merger of two villages. Bit by bit, then, I was fleshing out a world that had taken shape in my imagination, and, just as importantly, I was getting an idea of the feel of the story, which I was sensing would be a homage to Japanese horror: The Cove meets The Grudge. Next week, I’ll be talking about how I turned all of these pieces into an actual story, and what happened when I sent it out for submission. (For other installments in this series, please see here, here, and here.)
Note: This post contains some unavoidable spoilers about my novelette “Kawataro.” You’ve been warned!
With all due respect to Faulkner, I think it’s occasionally useful for a writer to be able to sit down and will a story into existence, if not for the money—which is rarely a worthwhile motivation—then at least for the practice. There’s something uniquely satisfying about taking a story from conception to final draft in only a couple of weeks, whether the goal is to satisfy an untapped creative urge or simply to fill a hole in one’s schedule. In the case of “Kawataro,” I had a break of roughly a month in the writing of The Icon Thief, when I was waiting to get some comments from my agent, and I decided to fill the time by writing a couple of short stories. One story, “Ernesto,” has yet to be published, although I hope you’ll have a chance to read it at some point. The other was “Kawataro,” the development of which provides a—hopefully—interesting illustration of how I work.
“Kawataro” began, as many of my stories do, with a trip to the library. Whenever I need an idea for a story, I head for the periodicals section of the Sulzer Regional branch and pick up a large stack of magazines, preferably Discover or Scientific American. (I used to have a big collection of back issues at home, purchased off eBay for the specific purpose of generating story ideas. These were left behind after my move to Chicago, but not before generating ideas for “The Last Resort,” “Warning Sign,” and “The Boneless One.”) My usual method is to browse until I see one or two articles that get my attention, and then to daydream about possible connections or plot ideas. For “Kawataro,” the inciting article was Margalit Fox’s story in Discover about the Ay-Sayyid Bedouins of Israel, who, because their population contains a high percentage of genetically deaf individuals, have developed their own unique sign language. (Fox’s book Talking Hands tells more about this fascinating community.)
So how did an article about the Ay-Sayyid Bedouins become a novelette about a remote Japanese fishing village? As usual, it was a combination of chance, inclination, and the inexplicable workings of the writing process. After reading the article, I had a vague idea for a story about a scientist trying to solve a mystery involving a community of the deaf, which could only be explained when it became clear that her patients were suffering from a previously undiagnosed genetic syndrome. (This may seem like an oddly specific story structure, but it’s actually a variation on the plot of my first Analog story, “Inversus.”) Looking into conditions resulting in deafness, I found that Pendred syndrome had the characteristics I needed: it caused deafness and hypothyroidism, which I thought might be useful for a medical mystery, though I didn’t yet know what the mystery was. Then I stumbled across this article, which contained the following fateful statement:
Goitre is the most variable syndrome in Pendred syndrome and is caused by impaired thyroxin production because of an organization defect. Goitre prevalence is dependent of the daily iodine intake and is, for example, seldom seen in Japan, where the daily iodine intake is high.
This may not seem like much, but when I read it, my receptivity to potential material was particularly strong. At once, I saw the outlines of my story: a Japanese village, a community of the deaf, and a syndrome that had gone undiagnosed because of the local diet. (I even suspected that a burakumin community might provide a suitably endogamous population for such a syndrome to take hold.) Now I had the scientific backbone of the story, and if I were just trying to write a short vignette, it might have been enough. But I was planning to write a novelette, which requires a real plot, and hopefully some action and suspense along the way. What next? Tomorrow, I’ll be talking more about how I hit on a structure for the plot itself, and how the mysterious figure of the kappa, or kawataro, first entered the picture. (For the remaining installments in this series, please see here, here, and here.)
But I would say to never force yourself to write anything. Once you do that you begin to think, “Well, I might as well force myself to write something and make a little money out of it.” And then you are sunk—you are gone, you have stopped being a writer. You must be an amateur writer always.
Should an aspiring author write short stories or novels? If you’re getting your MFA, you won’t have much of a choice: as perceptive observers have pointed out elsewhere, the machinery of most writing programs is geared toward the production of short stories, to the point where they often don’t know how to deal with novelists at all. And if you’re trying to write for a living, your choices are equally limited: while it’s very hard to make a living as a novelist, at least it’s still possible, while not even the most prolific author can survive solely through short story sales. But if you’re somewhere between the two extremes—say, just starting to figure out that you want to write, but not sure if you want to make a life of it—the decision to pursue one form or the other is a crucial question with no obvious answer.
First, a basic point: writing short stories is hard. Harder, in some respects, than writing a novel. In most cases, a novel gains its power from the cumulative impact of its episodes, rather than from one particularly strong idea (though there are exceptions), so as long as a writer structures the story properly and creates interesting characters, the reader will be reasonably satisfied, even if the author doesn’t hit the target exactly. With a short story, there’s no room for error. There isn’t a lot of space for a writer to build narrative momentum, which means that the entire story—especially in the mystery and science fiction genres—has to turn on one good idea. And if the idea isn’t a strong one, not only will the reader dislike the story, but it probably won’t be published at all.
At this point, I should confess that I don’t really write short stories—at least not the kind I’ve described above. All the stories that I’ve published or sold have been novelettes, which is a rather different form. John Gardner’s definition of the novella, in The Art of Fiction, is probably the best place to start:
The novella can be defined only as a work shorter than a novel…and both longer and more episodic than a short story. I use the word “episodic” loosely here, meaning only that the novella usually has a series of climaxes, each more intense than the last, though it may be built—and perhaps in fact ought to be built—of one continuous action.
This description fits my own work pretty closely. My novelettes tend to be on the long side for short fiction (10,000-12,000 words is about average), with three distinct acts and a structure loosely based on the conventions of mystery or suspense fiction, though with a scientific twist. They’re novels in miniature, or embryonic novels, and have more in common with their longer equivalents than with the very specific requirements of the short story.
Why have I adopted this hybrid form? For one thing, I write this way because I tend to think naturally in profluent plots, and the novelette is the shortest form in which such a plot can acquire real momentum. For another, the “short stories” I love best are really more like novelettes: nearly all of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, for instance, fall neatly into three acts and run somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 words. As a result, I understand the novelette in ways that I’m not sure I understand the classic short story, and it’s no accident that I’ve had much less success in writing conventional short fiction (though I do have one, “Warning Sign,” coming out in an anthology in a few months).
So where does that leave us with our opening question? As someone who loves both novels and short fiction, I’m glad I’ve done both: each form has taught me different things, and the lessons in one have shaped my work in the other. But though I’m clearly biased here, on a more practical level, I think that a writer might specifically benefit by writing novelettes—not novels, not short stories, but something in between. This approach, as I see it, solves a lot of problems. With practice, you can write a 10,000-word novelette in two or three weeks, as opposed to the year or more it might take to write a novel, and you’ll acquire many of the skills that a longer project demands. Plus you won’t get hung up on the technical perfection required by a publishable 3,000-word short story. Later, if you’re so inclined, you can scale your writing up or down, but in the meantime, there’s something to be said for aiming at the middle.
So where do you start? Tomorrow, using my own story “Kawataro” as an example, I’ll begin to discuss, step by step, how a novelette is made.
A plain sailor man took a notion to study Latin, and his teacher tried him with Virgil; after many lessons he asked him something about the hero.
Said the sailor: “What hero?”
Said the teacher: “What hero, why, Aeneas, the hero.”
Said the sailor: “Ach, a hero, him a hero? Bigob, I t’ought he was a priest.”
When I look at my writing from the past few years, I’m struck by a sharp division in my work, which sometimes resembles the output of two different authors. On the novel side, I’ve focused almost exclusively on suspense fiction, with the occasional literary touch: The Icon Thief is basically my take on the paranoid conspiracy novel, while its sequel—once called Midrash, currently untitled—is even more of a straight thriller. I love writing books like this, and one of the great pleasures of my recent life has been exploring the genre’s conventions and learning what makes such novels tick. But at the same time, I’ve been living an alternate, almost entirely separate life as a writer of short science fiction. And now that my novelette “Kawataro” is in stores, it’s probably worth asking why I write this stuff in the first place.
Because it certainly isn’t for the money. Analog‘s payment rate is pretty modest—at the moment, for a novelette, it’s between five and six cents a word—and while it still pays better than most other magazines, where payment can consist of nothing but a few contributors’ copies, devoting two or more weeks to writing a 12,000-word novelette isn’t an especially lucrative way of spending one’s time. And while I’m always immensely gratified to read reviews of my short fiction online, the fact remains that a writer can make a bigger impression with a single novel than with a dozen short stories. There doesn’t seem to be any rational reason, then, why I should spend my time writing stuff for Analog. And yet I still try to write at least a couple of short stories a year, and whenever I’m not writing one, I really miss it.
So why is that? The real question, I suppose, is why I write science fiction at all, instead of some other genre. (Mystery fiction, for one, has an honorable history, and there are still a couple of good genre magazines on the market.) Writers, not surprisingly, are drawn to science fiction for all sorts of reasons. Many of the writers in Analog, which remains the leading voice of hard science fiction, seem to have been brought to it by a deep love of science itself, with stories that methodically work out the details of a particular scientific problem. Other authors write science fiction because it gives them the opportunity to discuss major issues involving humanity’s future, to build entire worlds, or to allegorize a contemporary issue (as in Children of Men, which takes our reluctance to plan for the future and turns it into a world in which there is no future). Others, maybe most, are drawn to science fiction simply because it was the kind of fiction they loved best growing up.
This last reason comes fairly close for me, although it isn’t the whole story. Growing up, one of my favorite books was the wonderful anthology 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories, which I highly recommend if you can track down a copy. Reading these and similar stories—many of which I still know practically by heart—I was deeply impressed by their clarity, their precision, and above all their ingenuity. On the cinematic side, my favorite movie for many years was 2001, which, in turn, served as a gateway to such authors as Arthur C. Clarke, Orson Scott Card, and Robert Anton Wilson—the last of whom, in particular, remains one of my intellectual heroes. And I’ve already spoken of my love for The X-Files, which has given my stories much of their overall tone and shape.
Above all else, though, I love science fiction because it gives me a chance to make beautiful toys. The toymaking aspect of fiction has always been important to me, and hopefully this comes through in my novels, which I like to think of as intricate games between myself and the reader. And the science fiction short story—because of its love of ideas, its range of possible subjects, and the rewards it offers to ingenuity—has always been an ideal medium for play. While my stories occasionally tackle larger social themes, the motivation for writing them in the first place is always one of playfulness: I have an idea, an image, a twist, and want to see how far I can mislead the reader while still making the story an exciting one. Writing novels is joyous work, but it’s still work. Writing short fiction, especially science fiction, is closer to a game. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s the greatest game in the world.