Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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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