Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

How an octopus saved my life

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A bioluminescent octopus

Note: To celebrate the premiere of the audio version of my novelette “The Boneless One,” which you can hear narrated by Josh Roseman this week on StarShipSofa, I’m reposting a pair of essays I wrote last year on the story’s origins. This post originally appeared on September 27, 2011.

My writing career has had its share of ups and downs, but one of its roughest moments came in the spring of 2008. At that point, I’d been out of a job for two years, working hard on my first, still unpublished novel, an epic adventure story set in India. A year before, I’d landed a very good agent in what struck me as record time, and we spent the next twelve months working on the book, paring it down from a quarter of a million words and transforming it from an adventure novel into more of a streamlined thriller. In the end, though, we couldn’t see eye to eye on what this novel was supposed to be, so we decided to part ways, leaving me with no agent and a novel I wasn’t sure I could sell. I was crushed, but ultimately, I did the only thing I could: I started looking for agents again. And in the meantime, I turned back to my first love, which was short science fiction.

Over the next six weeks, as I waited for responses—fruitlessly, as it turned out—from the next round of agents, I researched and wrote two novelettes. The second, “The Last Resort,” was picked up fairly quickly by Analog and published in their September 2009 issue. The first, “The Boneless One,” which was the first wholly original work of short fiction I’d written since college, wasn’t published until November 2011. And although it took a long time for this story to see print, I’m relieved it finally did, because it’s probably my favorite of my own novelettes—both because of its inherent virtues and because of the role it played in my life. When I began writing “The Boneless One,” I’d hit my first serious wall as a writer, and was filled with doubt as to whether I’d make it at all. And it wasn’t until I decided to write a story for my own pleasure that I remembered why I was doing this in the first place.

Van Houtte octopus engraving

As a result, the memory of working on “The Boneless One” is one of my happiest memories as a writer. I began, as usual, by leafing through magazines, looking for an idea or two that might result in the germ of a plot. In this case, a few years earlier, I’d bought a trove of back issues of Discover and Scientific American, and while browsing through my collection, I came across two promising articles: one about luminescent ocean creatures, another about a global research voyage designed to catalog the previously undocumented genetic diversity of microscopic life in the sea. I’ve always been fascinated by oceanography, and love The Life Aquatic so much that I almost called this novelette The Knife Aquatic. And almost immediately, I saw the outlines of a story, about a research yacht that drifts into a ghostly school of glowing octopuses, and what happens in the aftermath.

Tomorrow, I’ll be talking more about how I conceived the story itself, which turned, rather unexpectedly, into a fair play murder mystery of exceptional gruesomeness. But today, I just want to reflect on the writing process, which was close to my ideal of how a writer’s life should be. I was living in Brooklyn at the time, so one afternoon, I took the train down to the New York Aquarium one with hopes of checking out an octopus or two. I didn’t see one—I think the octopus was hiding that day—but I still remember taking in the exhibits and a sea lion show, listening on my headphones to Eternal Youth by Future Bible Heroes, and trying to figure out the plot of this rather dark story. For the first time in over a year, after a grueling rewrite process, I remembered how it really felt to be a writer—to invent stories and characters just because I could. And for that, I have an octopus to thank.

If you’d like to read “The Boneless One,” you can find it in The Year’s Best Science Fiction, 29th Edition, edited by Gardner Dozois.

2 Responses

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  1. I *love* The Boneless One! I read that whole Dozois anthology cover to cover, and while all the stories were obviously great, that one stood out.
    Over time some stories you read fade, while some huddle away and get even richer and more colourful in the crevices of your brain – that’s what The Boneless One has been doing over the past year…gestating and laying brain eggs. (Ah, the disgusting but fantastic process by which mental landscapes are populated.) :-p

    sparksmcgee

    December 20, 2012 at 10:57 am

  2. Thanks so much! That means a lot to me—it’s by far my favorite of my own short fiction, and it’s always nice to hear that it’s made an impression on readers.

    nevalalee

    December 20, 2012 at 11:28 am


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