Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Cryptids

Discovering the “Cryptids,” Part 3

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The May 2014 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact

Note: This is the third of a three-part series on the origins of my novelette “Cryptids,” which appears in the May 2014 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. For the previous installments, please see here and here.

As soon as you’ve got an idea for a story, you’re naturally going to want a title for it. Unfortunately, titles are hard. I’m rarely satisfied with what I end up calling a story, and only in a couple of cases, as with “The Boneless One,” has a title suggested itself without effort. More often, it’s a long, unsatisfying process. It’s all the harder because I’m fond of titles that convey meaning on more than one level, ideally with a resonance that changes before and after the story is read. Sometimes, this takes the form of an ingenious pun, and I’m always pleased when I encounter a title with this kind of double meaning: Amy Waldman’s The Submission, Tracy Kidder’s My Detachment, Julie Powell’s Cleaving—the last of which is a rare example of a genuine triple pun. The title “Cryptids” suggested itself fairly early in the process, and I was much encouraged by the surprising discovery, courtesy of the invaluable Internet Science Fiction Database, that it had never been used before. Once I’d written it at the top of the page, though, I had to think of ways in which it could express something deeper, particularly in regard to character. So I started to consider how a person could be something like a cryptid: keeping a low profile, staying out of sight, surviving longer than anyone could have imagined.

This ended up being the key to the dynamic between the story’s two central characters, Karen and Amanda. I knew almost from the start that I wanted this to be a story about two women, partially because “The Whale God” didn’t have any women at all. Given the plot I’d sketched out, which involved a team of scientists being recruited into a project run by a pharmaceutical company, it seemed right to make their relationship that of an older mentor and an ambitious young protégée. The metaphor of the cryptid turned out to be a useful one: even as Karen seeks out a new species, she’s being sought out in turn by Amanda, who wants to know if the woman she once admired and envied still exists. Karen’s personality, in turn, was shaped by the logic of the title I’d chosen. She’s a survivor, someone who has managed to continue doing the research she loves by keeping her head down and focusing on her work in the field. As the story begins, she’s no longer sure that such a life is possible, but when the real cryptids attack, she finds that the skills she’s acquired are all that will keep her alive. The result gave the story, which otherwise might have degenerated into the literary equivalent of a monster movie, an emotional and thematic core, as embodied in the final line: “Some things can survive for longer than you think.” And if I’d happened to be drawn to a different title, the story might have ended up being about something else entirely.

Sinornithosaurus fossil

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a good monster movie in its own right, and since I knew that this would be a story about survival, much of my energy was devoted to making the action as logical and plausible as I could. We’ve all had the experience of watching a film in which the protagonist ignores an obvious means of escape, just because the plot demands it, so I wanted everything my characters did to make sense. In the end, they’re pinned down by venomous flying raptors, with nothing to defend themselves but the gear they happen to have on hand, with the dingy that brought them to the island inaccessible because of a storm. Laying these pieces into place was fun, if mentally taxing, and I especially enjoyed coming up with interesting ways in which they could use their scientific equipment. It’s a nice little formula, and I even went back and reread Stephen King’s “The Mist”—probably the best story ever written about people in a confined space fighting off a threat from outside—to see if I could mine it for ideas. Not surprisingly, the body count ended up being unusually high for a story published in Analog, which tends to avoid darker or more violent themes, but that was what the plot required. (Reviewing the story for Locus, Lois Tilton points to the abundance of redshirts, or characters who seem to exist just to get picked off by the cryptids, to which I stand guilty as charged.)

Reading it over again, I do get the sense, as at least one review has pointed out, that the ending is a little abrupt. This is mostly because, contrary to my usual approach, I started writing the story before I had the conclusion worked out. I had hoped that something good would come to me along the way, but ultimately, Karen and Amanda escape from the island, and that’s pretty much it. (The original outline ended on an ambiguous note, with Karen swimming toward the unseen dingy and Amanda’s fate unclear, but I quickly decided that this would only enrage readers.) Shortly after submitting the story, I began to wish that I’d included one more plot point or story beat at the very end—or even simply expanded the last couple of paragraphs to bring it to a more satisfying close—but at that point, I couldn’t take it back. If I ever end up revising it, perhaps for a collection or digital publication, I expect that I’ll do what I can to extend the climax and make it seem a little less lopsided. Still, given the story’s relatively modest ambitions, I’m happy with it. Certainly a lot of people seem to find it an exciting read, whatever its other limitations, and I’ve learned that if you can get a reader’s pulse to rise even slightly, you’ll be forgiven for most other shortcomings. A writer, like a cryptid, has to come up with a few good tricks in order to survive, and in this case, they just barely allowed me to get to the other side.

Written by nevalalee

March 26, 2014 at 9:44 am

Discovering the “Cryptids,” Part 2

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Note: This is the second of a three-part series on the origins of my novelette “Cryptids,” which appears in the May 2014 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. For the previous installment, please see here.

Stories can come into being in any number of ways. Sometimes an entire plot, or a long sequence, will be revealed to the author in a flash, like a gift from the gods. Sometimes it builds organically and surprisingly from an initial premise. Sometimes, alas, it’s the result of a mechanically imposed formula. And sometimes you need to build it one block at a time, assembling it as logically as you can from the pieces you already have. (Obviously, this range of approaches can take many intermediate forms, and in practice, different stages of a writing project will require different ways of proceeding.) With “Cryptids,” the turning point, as often seems to be the case, was a combination of a methodical process of construction and a sudden flash of insight. While I was doing research on insect-based pharmaceuticals, I became interested in the melyrid beetle, the body of which contains a potent neurotoxin absorbed from an unknown plant. The beetles, in turn, are consumed by other animals that can use the toxin for their own ends: it appears in the skin of poison-dart frogs and, fascinatingly, in the skin and feathers of the hooded pitohui, one of the only known species of poisonous birds. I’d read about the pitohui years ago, and after encountering it again, I thought it might be nice to put it at the center of this story.

What’s really interesting about batrachotoxin is how it gets passed up the food chain: it starts as a defense chemical in an unidentified plant, passes into the bodies of beetles, and is finally incorporated into frogs and birds. Not only is this scientifically intriguing, but it naturally suggests the skeleton of a plot. I’d already decided to write about a pharmaceutical company looking for insects with potential drug applications, which is an approach that lends itself to a kind of detective story. When the poison in a plant passes into an insect, the latter can serve as a walking advertisement for the underlying substance: poisonous insects and other animals are often aposematic, with bright colors warning predators to keep away, and it’s easier to follow such clues to the underlying source than to screen every plant in the rain forest. The pitohui allowed me to take this idea one step further. If my characters were in search of a particular drug, they could follow the bird to the insect, then the insect to the plant, which in itself is a story with three acts. The fact that we really don’t know the source of batrachotoxin—and that it’s the sort of poison, like digitalis, that might have potential medical applications—saved me the trouble of making up something from scratch. And it also told me that the story would probably take place in Papua New Guinea, where both pitohuis and beetles are abundant.

The author's notes for "Cryptids"

So far, this was a logical, if not particularly inspired, chain of reasoning. As usual, though, this kind of systematic work is useful to the extent that it prepares the ground for more serendipitous ideas, and when the next insight came, it was exciting enough that I gave it its own line in my notebook: And what eats the birds? If the poison passed from the plant to the beetles to the pitohuis, it wasn’t hard to imagine one more step in the chain, an apex predator that had evolved to feed on the birds and possibly the beetles as well. If I hadn’t spent some time thinking about the existing food chain, I don’t think this idea would have occurred to me, but once it did, I knew I had my story, and I even had a pretty good hunch about what form that apex predator would take. I’d wanted to write a story about cryptozoology for some time, and I’d even toyed with the idea of doing something with a lake monster. Here, however, I needed something more sinister. And when I dug a little deeper, I was fortunate to find that Papua New Guinea already had a cryptid of its own: the ropen, a reptilian flying creature alleged to be a kind of living pterosaur. Pterosaurs aren’t especially frightening, unless you happen to be a fish, but luckily for me, I soon found that the traditional description of the ropen—small in size, with a crest, a head like a crocodile, and claws at the end of its wings—lent itself to an alternative explanation.

Which is how I ended up with the dromaeosaurs. In particular, I quickly zeroed in on sinornithosaurus, which at least one study argues may have been venomous, as well as capable of flight. The cryptids in my story aren’t exact counterparts to sinornithosaurs—they’re a little larger, for one thing—but I took pains to make my description of their appearance and behavior as plausible as I could, knowing that I’d certainly be called out for any inaccuracies. The result had all of the qualities I look for in a story idea: when I was done, it seemed inevitable, even though it was the product of a lucky series of associations, and it also happened to be something that I couldn’t wait to write. This is thanks largely to the fact that I’d found my way there by accident, constructing the material link by link until it ended up somewhere interesting. If I’d started with the dromaeosaurs, I don’t think I could have found my way back to the pitohuis, and although the resulting story might have been good, it would have lacked most of the elements that I’d picked up for their own interest along the way. Of course, I still didn’t have much in the way of a plot, which meant I had to work back from the end point I’d conceived to figure out how I got there. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking a bit more about how the elements I already had—including my choice of a title—influenced the plot and characters, and why I’m still not sure if the story has the right ending.

Written by nevalalee

March 25, 2014 at 9:53 am

Discovering the “Cryptids,” Part 1

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The author's notes for "Cryptids"

Note: For the next three days, I’ll be discussing the origins of my novelette “Cryptids,” which appears on the cover of the May 2014 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. The issue should still be available on newsstands, and you can also pick up an online copy here. Needless to say, considerable spoilers follow.

A reader encountering “Cryptids” for the first time, or even just glancing at the cover art, might assume that I set out to write a story about venomous flying dinosaurs—which, granted, is a pretty cool concept, and just the kind of thing you’d expect to grab a writer’s attention. In fact, the dromaeosaurs didn’t enter my mind at all until I’d spent a lot of time speculating about the material that takes up the first half of the plot. It would be an exaggeration to say that the cryptids took both me and my characters by surprise, but the story behind this particular novelette is a useful illustration of how quickly an idea can move in unexpected directions. I’ve noted elsewhere how the urge to write a story often precedes the story itself, on both the largest and the smallest scales. Long before I knew what my first novel would be about, I knew that I wanted to be a writer of some kind: tackling a project of that size is so daunting that it requires a critical mass of existing ambition before most of us can even contemplate it. The same holds true for individual projects. Speaking from my own experience, a writer will sometimes start working on a story because he misses the act of writing itself; because he has some free time available; or because it’s been a while since he last got something published. And once that urge is there, it’s only a matter of finding a promising bit of material to which all those energies can be harnessed.

Looking back at my notes for “Cryptids,” which date back to last May, I see that I was even less certain than usual of what story I would end up writing. In my writer’s journal, there are brief synopses of three possible plots, all of them radically different. “Plot” is actually too generous a term: they’re barely even premises, more like avenues for further exploration. For the sake of the historical record, I’ll give them here, exactly how I jotted them down:

  1. Bug hunt—Pharma company searches for insects in Indonesia—looking to screen plants for possible drug applications
  2. Volcanos—Search for mammoth remains in Alaska coincides with a volcanic eruption
  3. Blindness—Man has vision restored but can’t process images properly—leads to unexpected complications—patterns of migratory birds provide insight

At a glance, none of these story prompts seems much more promising than any other, and it’s only by chance that I ended up going with the first, which changed a great deal in its own right before I was done. I may end up going back to one of the others someday, and if I don’t have any qualms about sharing them here, it’s only because I know that the story you or any other writer would write based on a hint like this would have nothing in common with what I might do with it. (I don’t even think I’d end up with the same story twice if I attacked these ideas under different circumstances.)

The author's notes for "Cryptids"

In the end, I ended up diving deeper into the idea that I called “Bug Hunt,” and in fact, that’s the name under which it originally appeared in my notes. I was inspired by an article I’d read about a real pharmaceutical company, Entomed, which is systematically screening insects from ecosystems across the world in search of potential drug applications. Although this sort of thing gets fuzzy over time, I’m pretty sure I was drawn to this idea because it naturally suggested a clothesline on which I could hang a story: a search for a MacGuffin in the form of a valuable insect, preferably in an interesting and dangerous part of the world, is the kind of versatile structure that I could use to tell any number of stories. It didn’t hurt that years ago, in college, I’d written a long story about ethnobotany in the Amazon rain forest, and I still remembered a lot of the underlying material. Still, this didn’t tell me much about what kind of story this was, who the characters were, or what would happen to them. The problem was to narrow down the range of possibilities, and in most of my own work, the crucial element is setting. A story like “Kawataro” or “The Whale God” could have been set nearly anywhere, and when I worked backward from the pieces I already had to end up in Japan or Vietnam, it locked the rest of the narrative into place.

With “Cryptids,” the premise I had in mind set certain constraints on the setting I could use. Logically, it would need to be a location of high biodiversity, which is where the attention of a drug development company would naturally be drawn, and this generally means an underdeveloped country or region with lots of undescribed species, which from a narrative perspective seemed likely to generate some interesting plot points. Beyond that, however, it could be any number of places. Amazonia was an obvious choice, and I already had a lot of research at my fingertips from my earlier story on the subject, but I didn’t really feel like going that route again. My initial impulse, as my notes indicate, was to set the story in Indonesia, both because it met all of the pragmatic requirements and because I hadn’t often seen it used as a setting in science fiction. I spent some time working up a story with Indonesia in mind, focusing on subjects, like traditional black magic, that I intuitively thought I could use. I uncovered some promising material, and I wouldn’t rule out a fictional visit to Indonesia at some point in the future. At some point, though, I began to feel that I was covering ground that I’d explored elsewhere, particularly in “Kawataro,” and as I continued to dig, I made a discovery that caused me to shift my attention abruptly to Papua New Guinea. How I ended up there, and how I found a particular cryptid waiting for me, will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.

Written by nevalalee

March 24, 2014 at 9:48 am

Attack of the “Cryptids”

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The May 2014 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact

When you’re a writer, one of the most surreal aspects of the process is seeing a story that exists only in the form of words on the page translated into visual terms. In some cases, the author has a chance to work closely with the artist involved, and the result can be a productive collaboration in its own right. More often, given the realities of the publishing industry, the writer is just as surprised by the result as anyone else. I’ve been lucky enough to have some degree of input into the covers of my novels, but the final version is designed and completed independently, and once it’s finished, my feedback is generally limited to small matters of typography. On the short fiction side, three of the eight stories I’ve published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact—”Inversus,” “The Boneless One,” and “The Whale God”—have boasted original interior illustrations, which I see for the first time when my author’s copies appear in my mailbox. For the most part, I’ve been pleased by the results, although there’s always some discordance between what I saw in my head and what the artist has envisioned. And that’s exactly how it should be.

Which is all just preamble to the fact that I’m thrilled to see my novelette “Cryptids” on the cover of the May issue of Analog, with gorgeous artwork by the legendary Vincent Di Fate. It’s the first time I’ve had an original cover illustration to accompany one of my stories, and I hope it won’t be the last. If you get a chance to read it, you’ll see that Di Fate has truly outdone himself here: it’s one instance in which the art is both remarkably faithful to the story and even more vivid than anything I could have imagined on my own. As I’ve done in the past, I’ll be commenting in greater detail on the story’s origins and development on the blog later this month. In the meantime, you can read a generous free excerpt on the Analog site, and as always, the issue is available both on newsstands and electronically. So far, the response to the story itself has been highly positive—I’m particularly gratified by the respectful notice I got from Prehistoric Pulp, a blog devoted to dinosaur and paleontology fiction—and I’m looking forward to seeing what the reaction from readers will be. But for now, I just can’t take my eyes off that cover.

Written by nevalalee

March 5, 2014 at 9:17 am

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