Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

You never know

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned from trying to make a living as a writer, it’s that you never know. What looks like a breakthrough may turn out to be nothing of the kind, and a lost cause can still turn around to surprise you. I quit my first job in my mid-twenties to make as honest an effort as I could to transform myself into a novelist, and after a year, I had a draft of a massive adventure novel set in India. I’d been warned, and rightly so, that finding an agent would be the hardest part of the process, but to my amazement, I got an excellent agent, with a great reputation and client list, within a week of sending out the manuscript for consideration. At that point, my head was exploding with dreams of fame—but it didn’t quite work out that way. After a year of increasingly frustrating revisions, which involved cutting the novel in half and rewriting much of the plot, my agent and I parted ways, and I was never able to get another agent interested in the revised version, which still sits in its metaphorical drawer at home. You never know.

As I’ve mentioned before, though, there’s one bright spot in the story. While I was waiting for responses from other agents, I decided to do something I hadn’t tried in a long time: write a science-fiction novelette. I’d sold one story to Analog years before, but after my second effort was rejected, I got out of the habit of writing short fiction, which is something I deeply regret. Faced with the prospect of a substantial wait before I could pick up my novel again, however, I figured that a short story would be just the thing to fill the time. Leafing through my usual trove of science magazines, I came up with the idea of a murder mystery set on a research yacht, exploring the North Atlantic, which drifts unexpectedly into a school of luminous octopuses. I did a lot of background reading, wrote to the leading expert on octopus autophagy, and even took a day trip to the New York Aquarium. And this remains one of the happiest memories of my writing life. For the first time in years, I was writing a new story, with interesting characters, in a genre that I deeply loved, and it reminded me of why I’d wanted to be a writer in the first place.

The resulting novelette, “The Boneless One,” struck me as the strongest short story I’d ever written, and it still does. But when I sent it off to Analog, it was promptly rejected, on the grounds that while the story did include an interesting scientific idea, it gave more emphasis to horror elements than was usual for the magazine—and the ending was a little too dark. Asimov’s passed on it as well, as did Fantasy & Science Fiction. Intergalactic Medicine Show loved it, except for the fact that there wasn’t really a satisfying conclusion. They expressed an interest in seeing it again if I wanted to write a new ending, which of course I did. I promptly sent it off…and never heard from them again, not even with a rejection. (I’m still not sure what happened there.) As a result, the story ended up in that metaphorical drawer, even as I began to rack up other sales, and I moved on to the longer project that eventually became The Icon Thief.

But I never forgot “The Boneless One.” Every now and then, I’d think back to the characters and their rather gruesome voyage, and I’d feel sorry that nobody would ever read about them except for me. I thought about putting the story online, or publishing it as a digital single. Finally, before I did anything else, I decided to take a chance and send it back to Analog, which had accepted two more of my stories in the meantime. I took a day or two to polish the latest version, with its new ending, and resubmitted it—and they took it. When it appeared in their November 2011 issue, more than three years after I’d written the first draft, it received easily the best response I’d ever gotten from a story, ending up on the Locus Recommended Reading List. One reader, in particular, seemed to like it a great deal. And two weeks ago, to my immense pride, it appeared in The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois. So in the end, a story that was rejected by every major print magazine in the genre may end up being my most widely read piece of short fiction to date. You never know.

Please tune today at 3:40pm CT to hear me discuss The Icon Thief with Steve Edwards on Chicago Public Radio (WBEZ 91.5). You can listen online here.

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