Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Gardner Dozois

The last resolution

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By just about any measure, this was the most rewarding year of my professional life. My group biography Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction was released by HarperCollins in October. I published one novelette, “The Spires,” in Analog, with another, “At the Fall,” scheduled to come out sometime next year. My novella “The Proving Ground” was anthologized and reprinted in several places, including in the final edition of the late Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction. I wrote a few new pieces of nonfiction, including an essay on Isaac Asimov and psychohistory for the New York Times, and I saw John W. Campbell’s Frozen Hell, based on the original manuscript of “Who Goes There?” that I rediscovered at Harvard, blow past all expectations on Kickstarter. (The book, which will include introductions by me and Robert Silverberg, is scheduled to appear in June.) My travels brought me to conventions and conferences in San Jose, Chicago, New Orleans, and Boston. Perhaps best of all, I’ve confirmed I’ll be spending the next three years writing the book of my dreams, a big biography of Buckminster Fuller, which is something that I couldn’t have imagined a decade ago. Even as the world falls apart in other ways, I’ve been lucky enough to spend much of my time thinking about what matters most to me, even if it makes me feel like the narrator of Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” who continues to work quietly in his hotel room as the civilization around him enters its long night.

In good times and bad, I’ve also found consolation on this blog, where I’ve posted something every day—and I have trouble believing this myself—for more than eight years. (My posts on science fiction alone add up to a longer book than Astounding, and they account for only a fraction of what I’ve written here.) At the moment, however, it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to keep up my streak. I won’t stop posting here entirely, but I can’t maintain the same pace that I have in the past, and I’ve resolved to take an extended break. For a long time, I planned to skip a day without any advance notice, but it seems appropriate for me to step away now, at the end of this very eventful year. I expect that this blog will go silent for a week or two, followed by occasional posts thereafter when anything grabs my attention, and I may well miss my morning routine enough to return eventually to something approximating my old schedule. In the meantime, though, I want to thank everyone who has hung in there, whether you’re a longtime reader or a recent visitor. Eight years ago, I started this blog without any thought about what it might become, but it unexpectedly turned into the place where I’ve tried to figure out what I think and who I am, at least as a writer, during some of the best and worst years of my life. I’m no longer as optimistic as I once was about what comes next, but I’ve managed to become something like the writer I wanted to be. And a lot of it happened right here.

The best of youth

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At some point, as I was preparing for last week’s World Science Fiction Convention, I realized that there was a good chance that I would run out of books. This wasn’t a problem that I ever expected to have. Astounding isn’t due to come out for another two months, and the hardcovers aren’t available yet, but in the meantime, my publisher printed up a bunch of advance copies, or galleys, which we’ve been sending to reviewers, media outlets, and everyone else we might want to reach. The number of galleys is relatively large, but not unlimited, and about a month ago, I began to hear rumblings that we were coming up short. (One issue is that we sent a hundred copies to Comic-Con, which sounds awesome in theory, although I wish that we’d saved them for Worldcon, which is much closer to this book’s target audience.) After scrambling to get copies from various departments, I ended up with two dozen galleys that could be spared for San Jose, which I supplemented with a stack from my stash at home. Some of these ended up being handed out at a booth run by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, while I set aside ten others for attendees at my roundtable and for a few special recipients. As a result, I was left with just six copies to give away at my reading, which drew a sizable turnout. Since I couldn’t give a copy to everyone, I had to think of ways to distribute the ones that I had, and it occurred to me to give a book to the youngest person in the room. Toward the end, I looked out at the audience and said, “Raise your hand if you’re under thirty.” And in a crowd of over one hundred people, exactly two hands shot up.

I had much the same experience at my other events, at which I saw perhaps half a dozen people who were under thirty years old. In nearly every case, I was among the youngest people in the room. (As far as I know, I attracted just one audience member across the entire week who was under twenty. He showed up to my second event, and I didn’t get his name, but if he’s reading this now, I’d like to hear from him. I think he deserves a copy, too.) Two years ago, after MidAmeriCon II in Kansas City, I wrote a blog post noting that I kept seeing the same fifty faces at my panels. I was aware that the average age at Worldcon has long been higher than that at similar gatherings, but it still felt as if I were spending the weekend at a convention within the convention—an enclave in which a vibrant but graying crowd was gathering to celebrate writers, stories, and a shared history that the larger community was beginning to forget. Now that more time has passed, it feels even more true today. Fandom is inexorably growing older. We’ve recently lost important personalities, such as Gardner Dozois and Harlan Ellison, who had embodied much of its institutional memory. And it isn’t clear whether new voices are emerging to replace the old ones. While I was in San Jose, I made time to meet up with a few younger writers whom I happen to know, and I saw a few familiar faces in the hallways, but for the most part, I spent the week at a slight remove from the authors and fans who looked like me, or who come from approximately the same generation. And as I’ve noted before, I occasionally have trouble making the case that they should take an interest in a book about these four writers.

But I’m not going to talk about that problem here, or lament the generational divide, if one even exists, within science fiction. Instead, I wanted to raise two points that I’ve only gradually been able to admit to myself, but which seem relevant to talking about this book and how it happened to emerge. The first is that I’m naturally more comfortable among older writers than I am among those my own age. I could explain this by saying that my interests tend to skew older anyway, which is true enough, but that isn’t the real reason. If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that it’s a defense mechanism—I feel so competitive around other writers my age that I can never fully relax around them, particularly if we’re at a similar point in our careers. It’s an aspect of my personality that I don’t love, and I’ve tried to get past it, but in the meantime, I tend to have a better time with writers who are at a different stage than I am, even if they’ve accomplished more than I ever will. The other key point is that I like being among the younger people in the room, and there’s a part of me that wants to extend that feeling for as long as possible. My choice of subject wasn’t consciously motivated by this, but I can’t rule it out. I’m often asked why someone my age would take an interest in this period, and I never get tired of the question, because the number of fields at which I can come across as a wunderkind is rapidly diminishing. If I were publishing my first novel, any interviews or profiles would make a point of describing me as a late bloomer, and if I were trying to break into screenwriting, I might actively lie about my age. I’m not even particularly young when it comes to literary nonfiction. But the golden age of science fiction offers a kind of optical illusion that makes me seem like more of a prodigy than I really am.

My point, I guess, is that a writer’s choice of subject is necessarily motivated by personal ambition, even by vanity, as well as by what the market will bear. (When people ask why I wrote a book about John W. Campbell, I respond, honestly enough, that he fascinates me—but I was also ambitious enough to grab a huge unexplored subject as soon as I saw that it might be possible for me to lay claim to it.) I may look out of place at these events, but that’s how I like it. Like many writers, I’m an outsider who longs in secret to be an insider, while still proclaiming my own difference, and I happened to stumble into a subject where this was still possible. Fortunately, I think that it also resulted in a good book, and one that nobody else could have written in quite the same way. From a marketing perspective, it doesn’t hurt that I look slightly different from its four central subjects, and the fact that I came at it from the outside allowed me to approach in ways that wouldn’t be possible for a lifelong fan. I’m obviously far from an unbiased critic of the result, but I do believe that this book benefited from being written from a place of detachment. Yet it was also born of my desire to find a big topic to tackle, as well as to earn a place in that room. Scratch the surface of any book, or a creative project of any kind, and you’ll find similar motivations. I might not have conceived of this project at all if I were the kind of writer who could feel at home anywhere else, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it again. But if there’s one thing that I took away from Worldcon this year, it’s that the room where I seemed most out of place is also the only one in which I wanted to belong.

Written by nevalalee

August 21, 2018 at 8:56 am

The Constant Gardner

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Yesterday, I heard that the science fiction editor Gardner Dozois had passed away. Gardner and I never met, and we exchanged only a handful of emails over the last decade, but he profoundly affected my life on at least two occasions. The first was when I was twelve years old, and I received a copy of Asimov’s Science Fiction—which Gardner was editing at the time—for my birthday. As I’ve recounted here before, it was that present from my parents, given at exactly the right moment, that made me aware of short science fiction as a going concern, as embodied by its survival in the three print digests. My career ended up being more closely tied to Analog, but it was Asimov’s that set me on that path in the first place. Without that one issue, I don’t know if it would have occurred to me to write and submit short stories at all, and everything that followed would have been very different. I certainly wouldn’t have written Astounding, which I’m sad that I never had the chance to send to Gardner. He was on my list.

My other great debt to him lies in the form of the annual anthology The Year’s Best Science Fiction. Each installment represented a massive amount of work—Gardner seemed to read everything—and I sometimes think that they’ll turn out to be his most lasting legacy. When readers of the future want to figure out what was going on in literary science fiction over the last thirty years, they’ll turn here first, just as I relied heavily on similar collections to approach the stories of an earlier generation. When Gardner selected “The Boneless One” in 2011, it provided a huge boost to my confidence, and I felt exactly the same way last year when he said that he was taking “The Proving Ground” for what will turn out to be his last volume in the series. As a result, I’m hopeful that these two stories will continue to find the occasional reader in the decades to come, which may not be true of any of my other fiction. Making sense of this genre can be an overwhelming task, and we rely on editors and anthologists to give it a retrospective order. Along with so much else, Gardner was a curator of the imagination. And it’s hard to envision anyone filling quite the same role ever again.

Written by nevalalee

May 28, 2018 at 8:19 am

Cannibalistic octopuses and other joys of writing

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Octopus engraving

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 28, 2011.

Years ago, the Onion ran an opinion piece, allegedly by Stephen King, with the title “I Don’t Even Remember Writing The Tommyknockers.” It was a joke, but an oddly prescient one: some time later, in his classic memoir On Writing, King confessed that he doesn’t really remember writing the novel Cujo. It’s true that King was going through some personal problems at the time, but I suspect that any reasonably prolific writer can identify with how it feels to no longer remember writing a particular story, especially once you’ve written so many. Which is my roundabout way of saying that I don’t remember when I first realized that I was going to write a story revolving around an octopus eating itself.

Sometimes you choose your subject, sometimes it chooses you, and the second I heard about infectious autophagy, I knew that I’d found the plot point I needed. Although I no longer remember how I first heard about it, I’m guessing that it was during the first few intense days of research for “The Boneless One,” when I was reading everything I could find about octopuses. Once I knew that autophagy was going to be a major element in this story, I was able to drill down, even corresponding briefly with the outstanding expert in the field to get a copy of a scholarly article on the subject. (I’m not sure what he’d think of the dubious uses to which I’ve put his research, but I hope he’d at least be amused.) And following this one gruesome clue to its logical conclusion eventually unlocked the entire plot.

Jacques Cousteau

Researching the rest of the story was a blast. I love ships, or at least the idea of them, so I spent hours on YouTube looking at guided tours of yachts and other research vessels. (YouTube, along with Google Maps, has made certain kinds of location research almost embarrassingly easy.) I read The Living Sea, Jacques Coutseau’s classic account of life aboard the Calypso, and consulted articles and a television documentary about the real research voyage on which the novelette is loosely based. I can only assume that I watched The Life Aquatic again, since this is already a movie I can happily rewatch on any given night. And in the end, I had a nice little scientific horror story: a bit dark, maybe, but with characters who really came alive, at least in my own head, and a satisfyingly tight murder mystery.

When I sent it off to Analog, it was rejected. Stanley Schmidt seemed to like it okay, but thought that the original ending, which leaves the fate of the voyage somewhat unresolved, was too depressing. I then sent the story around to a couple of other magazines, and it came close to getting picked up by Intergalactic Medicine Show, but nothing came of it, although I did end up writing a new ending. Finally, two years later, I polished the entire thing, cut it by ten percent, and resubmitted a version with the revised ending to Analog, which accepted it. The fact that I’d had two more stories accepted in the meantime may have had something do with this, but more likely, the first draft wasn’t quite good enough, and the final draft was. All told, it took almost three and a half years, but “The Boneless One” finally saw print. And I don’t even entirely remember how.

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.

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.

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.

UPDATED: The return of “The Boneless One”

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I’ve said before that of all my short fiction, the novelette “The Boneless One,” which appeared in the November 2011 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, is my own personal favorite. It isn’t always the case that a writer’s own opinion coincides with that of the rest of the world, but for once, a lot of other people seem to agree: in addition to being selected for inclusion in the upcoming edition of The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois, it also made Locus Magazine’s Recommended Reading List for the year. Both are huge honors, and the latter is especially exciting, because it automatically puts the story on the ballot for this year’s Locus Awards.

With this in mind, if you missed it the first time around, I’d like to remind you that the November issue of Analog is still available for electronic purchase at Fictionwise for only $3.99. (A free audio version of the story will also be released by StarShipSofa at some point in the near future, although I’m not quite sure where it fits in their schedule.) If you’re in the mood for a dark aquatic story of murder and octopuses, with overtones of The X-Files and The Thing—and as far as I know, there aren’t a lot of other stories that fit that description—you should check it out. Later, if you’re so inclined, you can check out my own posts on how I wrote the story, as well as a few reviews. Enjoy—and don’t let the octopuses bite.

Update: After clarifying the rights situation with Analog, I’ve confirmed that I can also post “The Boneless One” right here on this blog! I’ll probably only keep it up for a few weeks, but if you’re interested, you can read it here.

Written by nevalalee

February 3, 2012 at 11:06 am

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