Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for July 3rd, 2013

Inventing “The Whale God,” Part 3

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The September 2013 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact

Note: This is part three of a three-part post. For the previous two installments, please see here and here.

Writers fall into formulas for a number of reasons. The obvious motivation is a commercial one: if an editor consistently buys stories that fall into a particular category while remaining indifferent to others, it’s tempting to stick with what worked in the past. Formulas can also arise from a sense of one’s own strengths and limitations. Any story represents a significant investment of time, thought, and energy, and it’s easier to justify the expense—at least in the short term—if it’s directed into a shape that seems likely to generate a pleasing result. In my own work, I’ve been influenced by both factors to various extents. All the stories I’ve sold, either novels or short fiction, were works that I knew were comfortably within my abilities at the time; I’ve rarely tried to write over my own head. And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t take into account what I knew about the preferences of my editors, even though I’ve never written anything other than something I’d like to read myself.

The trouble, of course, is that a formula repeated for too long starts to grow stale, both for the writer and his readers. One of the challenges I’ve faced in my short fiction is figuring out a way to continue operating in the mode I like—which I enjoy one hell of a lot—while pushing it into new directions at the same time. It’s hard for an author to change his style overnight; instead, you’re more likely to see subtle variations and departures that occur within the realm of the familiar. With “The Whale God,” I was aiming to write a story that worked as the kind of contemporary scientific mystery that I’ve written in the past, while also modulating the action so that it focused more on the protagonist’s internal struggle as he confronts a situation that may be out of his control. I’ve established to my own satisfaction that I know how to write action and violence; I was more curious about whether I could write a war story in which no shots are fired. And the real question was whether the underlying premise was strong enough to sustain the reader’s interest.

Notebook page for "The Whale God"

That’s the nice thing about executing such variations within a structure I know well: once I have an appealing idea that seems reasonably within my wheelhouse, I’m fairly confident in my ability to follow through. You can see this progression clearly in my notes for “The Whale God,” which go from random brainstorming on the first page, much of which was later discarded, to a more systematic list of facts, story beats, and ideas, nearly all of which made it to the final story. On the third page of my notes, there’s an outline of all three acts, and it tracks the finished version remarkably well. I made small adjustments in the detailed outline and rough draft—I moved one ghost sighting from the whale temple to the beach, for instance—but the act breaks and major turning points survived pretty much intact. I like to think I’ve reached a point where any story I write will at least be “a proper song,” to use Stephen Sondheim’s words: it will begin and end in the right place, build properly, and have a few exciting moments. But it’s that initial premise on which it will rise and fall.

Which is why writing a story always remains a bit of a gamble, even once you’ve started to figure out the process. (I’m often reminded of William Goldman’s take on one of his own scripts: “The first draft was proper as hell—you just didn’t give a shit.”) In the case of “The Whale God,” fortunately, the premise was solid enough that Trevor Quachri at Analog liked it just fine. I sent it out at the end of September, and after a slightly longer wait than usual, possibly due to the recent editorial changeover, it was accepted after four months with no changes. Less than five months later, it was on newsstands, with a gorgeous illustration by Vincent DiFate. And I’m very happy with it. Reading it over again, I think it succeeds in drawing the reader along solely through atmosphere, character, and an interesting problem, and although there’s no conventional action or violence, it’s still a solid, shrewdly constructed story. And without my confidence in the rules I’ve established, I’m not sure I would have taken that risk.

Written by nevalalee

July 3, 2013 at 9:06 am

Quote of the Day

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Arthur Schoenberg

I see the work as a whole first. Then I compose the details. In working out, I always lose something. This cannot be avoided. There is always some loss when we materialize. But there is compensating gain in vitality.

Arnold Schoenberg

Written by nevalalee

July 3, 2013 at 7:30 am

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