Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Fantasy & Science Fiction

You never know

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned from trying to make a living as a writer, it’s that you never know. What looks like a breakthrough may turn out to be nothing of the kind, and a lost cause can still turn around to surprise you. I quit my first job in my mid-twenties to make as honest an effort as I could to transform myself into a novelist, and after a year, I had a draft of a massive adventure novel set in India. I’d been warned, and rightly so, that finding an agent would be the hardest part of the process, but to my amazement, I got an excellent agent, with a great reputation and client list, within a week of sending out the manuscript for consideration. At that point, my head was exploding with dreams of fame—but it didn’t quite work out that way. After a year of increasingly frustrating revisions, which involved cutting the novel in half and rewriting much of the plot, my agent and I parted ways, and I was never able to get another agent interested in the revised version, which still sits in its metaphorical drawer at home. You never know.

As I’ve mentioned before, though, there’s one bright spot in the story. While I was waiting for responses from other agents, I decided to do something I hadn’t tried in a long time: write a science-fiction novelette. I’d sold one story to Analog years before, but after my second effort was rejected, I got out of the habit of writing short fiction, which is something I deeply regret. Faced with the prospect of a substantial wait before I could pick up my novel again, however, I figured that a short story would be just the thing to fill the time. Leafing through my usual trove of science magazines, I came up with the idea of a murder mystery set on a research yacht, exploring the North Atlantic, which drifts unexpectedly into a school of luminous octopuses. I did a lot of background reading, wrote to the leading expert on octopus autophagy, and even took a day trip to the New York Aquarium. And this remains one of the happiest memories of my writing life. For the first time in years, I was writing a new story, with interesting characters, in a genre that I deeply loved, and it reminded me of why I’d wanted to be a writer in the first place.

The resulting novelette, “The Boneless One,” struck me as the strongest short story I’d ever written, and it still does. But when I sent it off to Analog, it was promptly rejected, on the grounds that while the story did include an interesting scientific idea, it gave more emphasis to horror elements than was usual for the magazine—and the ending was a little too dark. Asimov’s passed on it as well, as did Fantasy & Science Fiction. Intergalactic Medicine Show loved it, except for the fact that there wasn’t really a satisfying conclusion. They expressed an interest in seeing it again if I wanted to write a new ending, which of course I did. I promptly sent it off…and never heard from them again, not even with a rejection. (I’m still not sure what happened there.) As a result, the story ended up in that metaphorical drawer, even as I began to rack up other sales, and I moved on to the longer project that eventually became The Icon Thief.

But I never forgot “The Boneless One.” Every now and then, I’d think back to the characters and their rather gruesome voyage, and I’d feel sorry that nobody would ever read about them except for me. I thought about putting the story online, or publishing it as a digital single. Finally, before I did anything else, I decided to take a chance and send it back to Analog, which had accepted two more of my stories in the meantime. I took a day or two to polish the latest version, with its new ending, and resubmitted it—and they took it. When it appeared in their November 2011 issue, more than three years after I’d written the first draft, it received easily the best response I’d ever gotten from a story, ending up on the Locus Recommended Reading List. One reader, in particular, seemed to like it a great deal. And two weeks ago, to my immense pride, it appeared in The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois. So in the end, a story that was rejected by every major print magazine in the genre may end up being my most widely read piece of short fiction to date. You never know.

Please tune today at 3:40pm CT to hear me discuss The Icon Thief with Steve Edwards on Chicago Public Radio (WBEZ 91.5). You can listen online here.

Closing thoughts on “Kawataro”

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Looking back at “Kawataro,” I’m impressed by how quickly it all came together. Although the initial idea occurred to me somewhat earlier, I didn’t start researching it in earnest until April 12 of last year, which was a Monday. I spent the next few days reading and brainstorming, finished an outline on Friday, and began writing the story the following week. The first draft was finished by April 23, and by April 26—exactly one year ago—I had a revised version that changed very little before its final publication. All in all, then, the research, writing, and revision of “Kawataro” took about two weeks, followed by a period of almost a year before it saw the light of day, which is pretty typical of the magazine publication cycle. (“The Boneless One,” which is coming out this fall, will have taken almost three and a half years from conception to publication.)

Once I had the initial version, the revision of “Kawataro” was fairly painless. While some stories continue to evolve dramatically until the final draft—”The Boneless One,” for instance, has an entirely different ending from the version that I originally sent to Analog—the revision of “Kawataro” was just a matter of tightening the story and polishing the prose, or at least as much as could be done in three or four days. The first, incredibly messy draft was 13,300 words long, which I cut down to 10,700 very quickly, thus obeying Stephen King’s dictum by editing the first version by almost 20%. In retrospect, I wish I’d had another couple of days to polish the draft, but by that point I had to get back to work on The Icon Thief, so I had no choice but to send the story out as it was.

The first magazine to see “Kawataro” was Fantasy & Science Fiction, which rejected it. (I still haven’t been published there.) I honestly can’t remember why they turned it down, and while I probably have the rejection slip lying around here somewhere, it’s currently buried under countless other piles of junk. Analog was the next stop. (I would have sent it there first, but they already had another story of mine under consideration, and they don’t like it when you submit more than one story at a time.) I sent the manuscript off on July 17, and my first indication that they wanted to take it was three months later, when managing editor Trevor Quachri emailed to ask for a Word file of the story. At first, I thought that the acceptance letter had been lost in the mail, but it turns out that Stanley Schmidt liked it enough to accept it without corrections. Which is great—it’s the first and only time Analog has accepted a story of mine without changes—although to this day I’m not entirely sure what Stan thinks of it.

And what do I think of “Kawataro” today? Reading it over again, I couldn’t help but notice places where I would have revised the story if I’d had more time—some of the transitions between scenes, for instance, aren’t great—but all in all, I’m pleased by it. The writing is generally good, the setting is spooky and atmospheric, and overall, it’s a tight, compelling story. (My sister-in-law paid me the ultimate compliment by saying that she found it unsettling enough that she had to remind herself that it was only a story I’d written—which is basically the nicest thing a writer can hear.) And the various elements come together in a way that seems seamless, at least to my eyes. After enough time has passed, a story begins to assume a life of its own, until even the author has trouble remembering where all the pieces came from. As a result, I’ve really enjoyed reconstructing the process over the past few days, and hope that you’ve found it interesting as well.

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