Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for August 2012

Dispatches from Chicon 7

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If you happen to wander into the lobby of the Hyatt Regency in Chicago this weekend, the first thing you’re likely to notice is an abundance of Indiana Jones hats. From time to time, you’ll also see a few Yoda ears and Starfleet uniforms. You’ll also encounter a lot of guys who look startlingly like George R.R. Martin—including George R.R. Martin himself. But most of all, you’ll find a large crowd of rather peculiar people, superficially ordinary at first glance, who nonetheless seem somehow different from those you generally encounter around the Chicago Loop. It’s hard to pin down what sets fans apart, or why, as I approached the hotel, I kept noticing people, otherwise nondescript, who I just knew were going to the same place that I was. But if you spend enough time at the World Science Fiction Convention, you start to develop a sixth sense—or, in this crowd, maybe a seventh or eighth sense—for this kind of thing. And the overall feeling is exhilarating.

You could sense the diversity of the convention just by looking around the table at the New Writers panel I attended. There was moderator S.J. Chambers, who went from an editorial job at Strange Horizons to a Hugo nomination for The Steampunk Bible; Thomas Olde Heuvelt, a wunderkind who once found himself, to his chagrin, being billed at a convention as “the Horror Hunk”; Emma Newman, who got into Oxford with the help of a science-fiction story and then took a break from writing for ten years, only to return with a vengeance; Hanna Martine, a Chicago-area mom who switched from epic fantasy to paranormal romance after growing tired of the former’s lack of sex; and yours truly, who did his best to explain why he was attending a science-fiction convention with a book like The Icon Thief. (Later, one of the attendees advised me that, with this crowd, I was better off leading with my appearance in The Year’s Best Science Fiction and leaving my novels out of it.)

One of the things I love about Chicon so far is how funky it is. This isn’t a slick event like Comic-Con with a ton of media coverage, but an event for fans by fans. The big celebrities aren’t movie stars or directors, but the likes of Robert Silverberg—although I hear that Dan Harmon might make an appearance at the Hugo Awards on Sunday. This is a convention whose earliest incarnations were attended by the likes of Heinlein, Asimov, and Bradbury, whose names are still invoked with awe and affection. And that sense of continuity is everywhere you look. Its spirit might best be expressed by the appearance at the opening ceremony of Erle Korshak, who, at the age of seventeen, was the secretary at the very first Chicon, held on September 1, 1940. When asked how it felt to be at this year’s convention, Korshak replied: “It makes me glad that I’m still alive.”

And while the convention itself has grown much larger over time—about five thousand people are scheduled to attend this year—it still feels charmingly old-fashioned. One of my favorite things about literary science fiction is how low-tech it tends to be: it’s no accident that its most venerable magazine is called Analog, which just began accepting electronic submissions last year, and whose editor only recently stopped sending out typewritten acceptance letters. Fandom was built on mimeographed fanzines, electronic bulletin boards, and Geocities pages, and despite a well-designed convention app, the Chicon website itself has a pleasingly dated feel. The great thing about science fiction is that its finest practitioners didn’t need access to the technology of the future in order to write about it. They just needed a pencil and a dream—and when you look around this convention, it’s hard not to conclude that their dreams were larger as a result.

Note: Today at Chicon at 3:00 pm, I’ll be appearing on the panel “Turning Ideas Into Stories,” also featuring authors Tim Akers, Roland Green, Louise Marley, and Jamie Todd Rubin. This is going to be a good one!

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August 31, 2012 at 9:38 am

Quote of the Day

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August 31, 2012 at 7:30 am

Listening to “The Voices,” part 3

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One of my favorite quotations about creativity of any kind comes from the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, as quoted in the wonderful book Which Lie Did I Tell? by the screenwriter William Goldman:

I cannot write a bad song. You begin it here, build, end there. The words will lay properly on the music so they can be sung, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper song.

At the risk of sounding presumptuous, and with no thought of comparing myself to either Sondheim or Goldman, I sometimes like to think that the same point applies, at least to some extent, to my own short fiction. I’ve worked hard at developing my writing skills, and I know a lot of useful tricks—laying in the narrative hook, starting the story as late as possible, structuring each beat around a clear objective—within a specific tonal range. Give me two weeks, and I can start from nothing and end up with a technically sound short story or novelette. It won’t stray too far from my comfort zone, and whether or not anyone else will want to read it, much less pay money for it, is another question entirely. But it will be a proper story.

Of course, some stories are more proper than others. (As Goldman says of his screenplay for Absolute Power: “The first draft was proper as hell—you just didn’t give a shit.”) And when I look back at my novelette “The Voices,” my first thought is that I wish I’d done a better job. It isn’t a bad story by any means: if nothing else, it got published, which is more than I can say for a lot of other things I’ve written. I wouldn’t change much, if anything, in the first half, which I think is pretty strong. But as I noted yesterday, the ending left many readers confused, and when I read over the last few pages now, I see a lot of things I’d like to fix, especially in Dr. Iyer’s final speech, in which I alternate between spelling things out too clearly and not clearly enough. Like much of my work, “The Voices” also suffers from having too many ideas: I don’t think we necessarily need the discussion of how people born in winter months are more likely to suffer from schizophrenia—hence January’s name—or the point that some of the symptoms of schizophrenia can be alleviated by smoking. These are nice ideas, but they distract from the main line of the story, and I have a hunch that I’d cut them now if I had the chance.

All of this is highly subjective, and if you asked some of my more critical readers what they disliked about this story, they’d probably come up with an entirely different list. Still, my own tastes are the ones I trust the most, and to my eyes, of all the stories I’ve published in Analog, “The Voices” is the only one I think would benefit substantially from another draft. The funny thing, of course, is that I’ve had plenty of time to repent at leisure: I wrote the initial version in about two weeks, and it was accepted soon thereafter, but as usual, the wheels of Analog turn slowly, and the story appeared close to a year later. (Authors are also actively discouraged from making any changes, no matter how minor, in the interval between acceptance and publication.) If I ever see it printed again in another form—like the anthology that I’d love to put together once I have enough published stories, which at my current rate will occur sometime within the next forty years—it’s likely that I’ll tweak it a bit more to my own satisfaction.

In the meantime, I’ve learned an important lesson, which is that I should hold off on submitting stories like this until I’ve had time to appraise them with a cooler eye. Most of the problems with “The Voices,” real or imaginary, would have been avoided if I’d set it aside for a week after completion, turning back to other projects in the meantime, and taken one day at the end for a final reading and polish—which is exactly what I intend to do when I write my next story, which will hopefully happen sometime in September. When it comes to writing this kind of fiction, speed is a virtue—as I’ve said before, given my current schedule, I can’t really justify taking more than two weeks to write a story like this—but when the publication cycle can run close to a year, there’s no harm in waiting a few extra days to make sure the draft is as strong as it can be. I still like “The Voices.” It’s a proper story. But when I look at the version before me, I can’t help but wonder, if I’d been just a little more careful, if it could have turned into something more.

Note: Today at 4:30 pm, I’ll be appearing on my first panel at the World Science Fiction Convention here in Chicago, a session for new writers also featuring S.J. Chambers, Emma Newman, Hanna Martine, and Thomas Olde Heuvelt. Hope to see some of you there!

Written by nevalalee

August 30, 2012 at 9:37 am

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Written by nevalalee

August 30, 2012 at 7:30 am

Listening to “The Voices,” part 2

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(Note: The following post contains massive spoilers for my novelette “The Voices.”)

Ambiguity can be a dangerous thing. Nearly every writer has been tempted to write a story that can be read in two different ways, or to mislead readers with unreliable narrators or the withholding of crucial information. When it’s done right, as in The Sixth Sense, the effect can be overwhelming, as the conclusion forces you to rethink everything you’ve seen before. The trouble is that if you’ve done your job poorly, or too well, readers may end up with a radically different impression from the one you intended, even if you’ve done your best to steer them in another direction. After Inception first came out, legions of viewers insisted that they saw the top fall in the final shot, even though it clearly does no such thing. When you’re deliberately trying to generate confusion, as in a movie like Certified Copy, it can be a lot of fun. But when you’ve written a story that hinges on a particular twist, only to have readers draw altogether different conclusions, the result can be frustrating for everyone concerned.

In the case of my story “The Voices”—and big spoilers follow—the ending reveals that January, the main character, is exactly what she seemed to be at the beginning: a woman with severe schizophrenia. The treatment she undergoes causes the voices in her head to fall silent, but replaces them with a more insidious hallucination: at the end of the story, she discovers that the young scientist with whom she has earnestly discussed the implications of her case is just a figment of her imagination, and that her delusions, thwarted along one parameter, had simply found another way to break out. When I first wrote the story, I tried to make this as clear as I could, including a long explanation in dialogue and a series of flashbacks, a la Fight Club, that encouraged the reader to reinterpret previous moments in a different light. And when my wife—always my first and best reader—told me that the ending was still a little unclear, I did my best to underline these points even further.

In the end, though, my wife’s initial reaction was probably a warning sign.  When the story was published in Analog, I noticed a curious thing: a lot of readers, including at least one professional critic, were left with the impression that the voices were, in fact, real, and that I was writing a thinly disguised fantasy. The difficulty, I think, is that for most of the story’s length, the voices are presented at face value, as equal participants in the narrative, a tactic that seems to have convinced many readers that they were supposed to be objectively real. As one critic writes:

The problem here is with January’s denial, when she engages in lengthy conversations with the unseen presence, takes their detailed advice, and even calls one of them by name. If she has a delusion, it’s the unfounded notion that she’s delusional. The reader knows better and will have a hard time crediting this character.

Needless to say, this wasn’t what I intended: I wanted it to be clear, at least in retrospect, that every scene was written from January’s point of view, and that the fact that she could engage in extended conversations with the voices—which happens in cases of severe schizophrenia—is no evidence at all that they’re real. In the end, though, it seems that this narrative device was a little too convincing, and left many readers with the opposite impression even after I did my best to demolish it in the story’s final pages.

So what’s the lesson here? If readers ended up being confused in ways that I didn’t intend, it’s my fault, and I ultimately feel that the ambiguity hurts the story. (It’s no accident that “The Voices” has received something of a mixed reception from readers, with some highly positive reviews and others calling it their least favorite story in the issue—and while I don’t have any hard evidence for this, I suspect that those who concluded that the voices were real tended to like the story less, if only because it seemed more like fantasy than science fiction.) Looking back, part of me wonders if I could have made the ending more clear, although I also think that the only real solution would have been to recast the entire story in the first person, which would have emphasized the unreliable nature of the main character’s perceptions. Still, if nothing else, the experience taught me a valuable lesson: if you’re going to be ambiguous, you’d better be clear about it.

Written by nevalalee

August 29, 2012 at 10:12 am

Quote of the Day

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“I have a theory which I suspect is rather immoral,” Smiley went on, more lightly. “Each of us has only a quantum of compassion. That if we lavish our concern on every stray cat, we never get to the centre of things. What do you think of it?”

John le Carré, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Written by nevalalee

August 29, 2012 at 7:30 am

Listening to “The Voices,” part 1

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Writers love to talk about how certain ideas seize their attention and won’t let go, but in my case, almost invariably, the desire to write a story comes long before the initial idea, not the other way around. In other words, I start by deciding to write something, then look for something to write about. This peculiar urge, which seems to exist independently of any particular subject, can arise when I happen to have a few weeks free to work on a writing project; when I have the itch to see something of mine in print, and hopefully to get paid for it; or, most of all, when I miss the experience of starting with a blank page and empty mind and turning it into something with suspense, structure, and emotion. In particular, in July of last year, I found myself motivated by a number of such factors. I’d just finished the first draft of the novel that would eventually become City of Exiles, an exhausting experience that had left me feeling a little burnt out and anxious to try something fun. I wanted to take two weeks off before plunging into the rewrite. And I hadn’t written any short fiction in a long time.

With this in mind, I began looking around for an appropriate subject for a short story, which would eventually become my novelette “The Voices,” which finally appeared last month in the September issue of Analog. As I’ve said before, whenever I find myself stuck for ideas, I go to the library and start browsing, usually among the science magazines. I’m not looking for anything in particular, just something that will start a chain of associations or trigger the jolt of curiosity that I’ve long since come to associate with a promising project. More specifically, I’m looking for two or more articles that collide in interesting ways, since I’ve found that much of what we call creativity arises from unexpected combinations. I’ve explained in earlier posts how a similar process led to my stories “Kawataro,” “The Boneless One,” and “Ernesto,” and in this case, after a few hours of browsing at the Sulzer Regional branch of the Chicago Public Library, I found a couple of articles in back issues of Discover that seemed very promising: one by Adam Piore about the attempt to create a kind of synthetic telepathy that could read soldiers’ thoughts, and one by Karen Wright about the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation to treat symptoms of schizophrenia, including auditory hallucinations.

These two articles fell together very neatly, and almost at once, I began to envision a character who suffered from auditory hallucinations, like disembodied voices, and sought treatment from a therapy that could “read” the voices in her head. It was a good beginning, but like all stories, it needed something more, which in this case came from an unexpected source. At the time, I was reading the sprawling fantasy novel Little, Big by John Crowley, and although I had some reservations about its structure and pacing, I was, and remain, haunted by its atmosphere, which creates a genuine air of mystery and romance around a big rambling house in New England and the spirits of nature nearby. On a more sinister note, this is also Lovecraft country, a place where the woods have many secrets, which made it the perfect location for the story I had in mind. When we’re presented with a woman who hears voices, we might reasonably conclude that she’s suffering from schizophrenia, but if she’s from a certain part of the New England countryside, with its rumors of elves and fairies—well, we might slowly start to wonder, if we aren’t sure what kind of story we’re reading, whether the voices might in fact be real.

What that, I had my story. If Joan of Arc were alive today, I reasoned, she might well end up in psychiatric treatment, even as she continued to wonder if the messages she was receiving were coming from somewhere outside her own mind. My main character would be a sort of Joan figure—I ended up calling her January, for reasons I’ll explain later—who was smart, skeptical of the voices she was hearing in the woods, and willing to do whatever it took to discover if they were real or not. I’d stay in her head for the entire story, presenting everything from her point of view, including the voices, which would speak to her as reasonably as any other character, with no sense that they might be imaginary. The resulting story would skirt the edges of fantasy, while remaining firmly grounded in science fiction, although the reader wouldn’t necessarily know this. Indeed, if I did my job correctly, I could keep readers in a state of suspense over how much of the narrative to believe, to the point where they might even forget that the main character, by definition, was far from a reliable narrator. And as I’ll explain tomorrow, in the finished story, it may have worked a little too well.

Written by nevalalee

August 28, 2012 at 10:03 am

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