Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Making of “Stonebrood,” Part 1

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A RoboBee

Note: For the next three days, I’ll discussing how I conceived and wrote my novelette “Stonebrood,” the lead story in the October issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. A long excerpt can be found here, and the whole thing is available both on newsstands and for purchase online.

At this point in my life, I’ve written a bunch of short stories, and you’d think that the process would have gotten a little easier by now. Invariably, though, whenever I sit down to write something from scratch, I’m paralyzed by the fear that I won’t be able to do it again, and I can barely remember—despite the detailed notes that I keep about my process—how I’ve done it before. And this insecurity isn’t entirely unfounded. When you’re a reasonably prolific writer, you end up caught in an arm’s race between two competing trends. On the one hand, you’re a stronger, more efficient craftsman than you were when you first started, and you’ve learned a few tricks along the way about plot and character, even if, as Jack Woodford notes, you can’t always articulate what it is that you’re doing. On the other hand, once you’ve written half a dozen stories for public consumption, you find yourself boxed in, not just by the possibilities of any one idea, but by all the other ideas that you’ve already used. If you don’t want to repeat yourself, you soon realize that each story you write closes off certain avenues for future exploration. As David Brin once wrote: “If you think that the territory of notions is limited, then the hard [science fiction] writer is like a wildcat miner drilling out resources that are shrinking.” And while that’s true of the field as a whole, it’s also true of any one writer and his or her own backlog of ideas.

In my case, I’ve found that I tend to fall back repeatedly on a couple of stock formulas, notably the story in which what looks like a paranormal phenomenon turns out to have a valid, if highly unlikely, scientific explanation. (In a way, it follows the basic form of an episode of The X-Files while inverting its logic: my stories take place in an equally weird universe in which Dana Scully is always right.) In practice, this kind of story has a way of relying on the same handful of monkey tricks, in which, for instance, the events hinge on some obscure medical condition, the symptoms of which are misinterpreted until the end as something else. When the stories are read individually, there’s no reason why I can’t resort to that gimmick as often as it works, as long as the plot and setting are distinctive enough to make their similarities less obvious: these stories appear few and far between, and I don’t know how many readers remember them well enough to see a pattern there. But I’m also writing with one eye to that hypothetical day when all of these stories will be collected within book covers—if not by a conventional publisher, then at least in an electronic edition that I assemble myself for my own satisfaction. And when you read a string of such stories back to back, it soon becomes clear if a writer relies too often on the same kind of twist. Whether or not this is a valid concern is beside the point: if it motivates me to strike out in new directions, it’s probably a good thing.

Centralia, Pennsylvania

And if you’re really worried about writing the same kind of story too often, there are basically two things you can do. The first approach tackles the problem from the top down: you can pick a notably different story type or subcategory and see what happens when you try to work within those conventions. This was the tack that I followed with “Cryptids,” which was basically a straight monster story, and although the success of the outcome is debatable—many readers seem to have liked the result better than I did—you can’t say that it reads like the other stories I’ve written. The second approach, which is more interesting, is to start from the bottom up: you seek out raw material from a different source than the ones that have provided you with ideas in the past. Many of my premises have emerged from science journals or magazines, which lends itself to a particular kind of plot: the twist, when it comes, is surprising to the extent that it turns on a quirky fact that most readers wouldn’t be expected to know off the tops of their heads. When I decided, about a year ago, to write something new, I figured I’d start somewhere else. In this case, I picked up a stack of back issues of The Atlantic, which is hardly known for its science coverage, and browsed in it until something caught my eye. I was looking for articles that suggested a setting or general plot structure, preferably with a lot of background material that I could use, and I finally found it in the form of a long article by Brian Mockenhaupt on the tragic case of nineteen firefighters who died in a wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona.

It’s a compelling, beautifully researched piece, and I could tell at a glance that could form the basis of a good story. Even better, it reminded me of an article that I’d read and filed away a few months earlier with an eye to developing it later: a New York Times piece by Fernanda Santos about the convict crews that are increasingly being put to work fighting forest fires in places like Yarnell. At the time, I had the vague notion of writing up something like Con Air meets Backdraft, which is an idea I’m happy to pass to any aspiring screenwriters who might be reading. Since this was going to be a story for Analog, though, I started to look for a scientific angle using the dumbest method imaginable—I did a few searches in the archives of my favorite science magazines to see if I could find anything interesting about firefighting. As luck would have it, I found two articles right away in Discover that sparked a chain of ideas of their own. The first was about coal seam fires, the invisible infernos that can rage underground for decades, most famously in the ghost town of Centralia, Pennsylvania; the other was about the use of tiny drones, resembling bees, that might be used by firefighters to send back information about the inside of a burning building. Within seconds, I saw the outline of a story about a convict crew fighting a coal seam fire and using drones to map it. It was a nifty image, but it lacked characters or a plot. Tomorrow, I’ll talk a little more about how a narrative began to suggest itself, and why I named the story after a disease that can be caught by beekeepers.

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