Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Kawataro

Stories old and new

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Beware of the kappa, or kawataro!

I’m pleased to announce that Analog Science Fiction and Fact has picked up my novelette “Stonebrood,” which looks like it should appear in print later this year. It’s my first new piece there in some time, and it’s a good one—which might seem like an odd statement for its author to make. In fact, I’ve noticed a Star Trek-style pattern of quality in my recent stories, with decent efforts (“Ernesto,” “The Whale God”) alternating with works that feel maybe a little weaker in retrospect (“The Voices,” “Cryptids”). “Stonebrood,” fortunately, comes on the upswing, and it’s probably the closest thing to a “classic” story of mine I’ve published in quite a while: it’s plotty, dark, and set against the kind of backdrop I like, in this case a coal seam fire raging underground in central Pennsylvania. I hope you all enjoy it.

If there’s one story that feels like the embodiment of what I do best, within my admittedly narrow range, it’s “Kawataro,” which first appeared in Analog in June 2011. As it happens, I’ll be reading from it tonight at an event sponsored by the Chicago Writers Conference, where I’ll be appearing along with Nami Mun, Vu Tran, and my wife Wailin Wong. I chose “Kawataro” in part because of its Asian themes—the reading is timed to coincide with Asian Pacific Heritage Month—and because, frankly, it may be the strongest story I’ve ever written, or at least the one that I tend to revisit the most. I’ve only got ten minutes at the podium, so I won’t be able to get through it all, but I’ve posted the entire story here. If you’ve never read it, please check it out: I went over it the other day, and I’d say it holds up pretty well. (I’ve also described its origins in detail.) And if you’re in Chicago this evening, I’d love to see you there.

Written by nevalalee

May 1, 2015 at 8:44 am

The oblique angle

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Illustration for "The Whale God" by Vincent DiFate

On Friday, I’ll be reading at an event sponsored by the Chicago Writers Conference, titled “A Celebration of Asian-American Writers in Chicago,” with authors Nami Mun, Vu Tran, and Wailin Wong. (If that third name sounds a little familiar, it’s because Wailin and I are married, which marks the first and only time I’ve felt like part of a literary power couple.) The reading is timed to coincide with Asian Pacific Heritage Month, and while I’m pleased to be included, I’ve also found myself reflecting on the role that my background has played, if any, in my work. As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m multiracial—half Chinese, the rest Finnish and Estonian—and my track record of tackling Asian themes in my own writing is a mixed one. Two of my short stories, “Kawataro” and “The Whale God,” address such issues directly, the former in Japan, the latter in Vietnam, but my novels prefer to engage the subject from an angle, using Russia as a canvas for exploring the conflict between eastern and western cultures. In a way, the figure of the Scythian or Khazar is simply a translation of my life story into geographical terms: I’m not from the steppes, but I’m fascinated by places in which that collision has shaped entire civilizations, rather than individual lives.

Really, though, when you look at my writing as a whole, a very small percentage is devoted to themes that can be traced back to issues of identity. And I’ve spent a long time wondering why. Part of it has to do with the nature of being multiracial: you’re left to figure out a lot of important things for yourself, and it’s hard to commit yourself entirely to one side or another. Another element is purely personal: as a writer, I’ve always placed a premium on detachment, and I continue to feel that I do my best work when I can regard it with some objectivity. Autobiographical writing has never held much appeal for me; you end up so close to the material—a danger for any kind of writing whatsoever—that you’re unable to judge it with the coldness that good writing demands. And the rest may just be an accident. What catches your interest as a writer, not to mention what gets published, is largely a matter of chance, and quirks of timing and process yield patterns that may or may not be meaningful. Whenever I end up writing about Asian themes, it’s because the story demands it, not because I set out with such intentions in mind. “Kawataro” was a scientific puzzle I had to solve, and the answer turned out to be in Japan; “The Whale God” took place in Vietnam for similar reasons, although I briefly pursued the idea of setting it in Greenland.

Mind maps for the story "Kawataro"

Yet none of these explanations get at the crucial point, which I can only describe as an intuition—which is visible throughout my work—that the best way to approach any subject of great personal importance is through an indirect route. In The Spooky Art, Norman Mailer makes a similar point, although in a very different context, in talking about writers who lived through September 11:

There must be five hundred young writers in New York who had a day of experience that was incomparable—nothing remotely like that had ever happened before in their lives. And it’s likely that some extraordinary work will come out of it. Hopefully, not all of it about 9/11. If you never write about 9/11 but were in the vicinity that day, you could conceivably, in time to come, describe a battle in a medieval war and provide a real sense of such a lost event. You could do a horror tale or an account of a plague. Or write about the sudden death of a beloved. Or a march of refugees. All kinds of scenes and situations and derive ultimately from 9/11. What won’t always work is to go at it directly. That kind of writing can be exhausted quickly. And the temptation to drive in head-on is, of course, immense—the event was so traumatic to so many.

And while the problem of dealing with one’s background may seem to have little in common with a single day of indescribable trauma, the underlying point is the same. If a writer is a machine for making choices, the most interesting decisions tend to emerge from a transmutation of the underlying material, until the original source becomes unrecognizable. I don’t always identify as an Asian-American writer, or even as a Eurasian one, but the themes that I revisit repeatedly—the idea of the world as a puzzle to be solved, the search for patterns in a mass of data, the extent to which we’re able to be free creators of ourselves—certainly arise from the problems I’ve mulled over in my own life. Most authors tend to define themselves in terms of their own otherness, and if nothing else, the choice to become a writer at all provides enough otherness for a lifetime of stories. The trick, I’ve come to believe, is to treat that sense of difference as an excuse to seek out the untold, the unknown, and the unrepresented wherever we find it, even if it wears a face nothing like our own. On the surface, it may seem that we’re exploring lives that have nothing to do with us. But it’s that oblique angle, or the approach from the unexpected direction, that guarantees that we’ll have been talking about ourselves all along.

Written by nevalalee

April 28, 2015 at 9:26 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

Is this really science fiction?

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Illustration for "The Whale God" by Vincent DiFate

Like most writers, I take an interest in the responses to my work. Since “The Whale God” was published this month in Analog, it’s been reviewed at a handful of professional or semiprofessional review sites, as well as on a number of blogs written by fans. Most of the reviews have been respectful and positive, but I’ve also seen a familiar theme recur even in the ones that liked the story, and especially in the ones that didn’t: they don’t think “The Whale God” is really science fiction, or if it is, it just barely qualifies. At this point, I’m no longer surprised by the reaction, which I’ve seen for every short story I’ve published in the last few years. I don’t agree with the assessment, but it does give me pause. I’ve said more than once that I try to write stories that other readers will enjoy, but it looks increasingly as if my work doesn’t quite fit with what many Analog subscribers are expecting. And it isn’t because I’m pushing the boundaries of the medium: there are countless other writers whose work is more innovative and challenging than what I happen to write.

First, let’s deal with the question of whether these stories are science fiction at all. In the past, I’ve tried to come up with a definition of science fiction broad enough to encompass my work, but the best is probably the one in Analog’s own guidelines for submission:

Basically, we publish science fiction stories. That is, stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse. Try to picture Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein without the science and you’ll see what I mean. No story!

In most respects, my stories fit comfortably within that rubric, except for one sticking point: the word “future.” All of my stories take place in the present, or in the recent past, and they’re often less about future science than about speculative combinations or consequences of the science we know now. In my story “Kawataro,” for instance, I introduce what seems like a mythical creature in a village of the deaf in Japan, and I then suggest that both the creature and the deafness might have arisen from a previously undiagnosed genetic syndrome. Each piece is real, but combined in a highly speculative way, and the result is pure fiction.

"Kawataro" in Analog Science Fiction and Fact (June 2011)

That’s where the “future” element subtly comes into play: these stories all describe something that hasn’t happened yet, but could, as long as reader is willing to grant a few basic assumptions. The same is true of “The Whale God,” despite its period setting. The psy-ops program I describe never really existed, although it’s in line with similar research that was being done at the time, and although its effects on whales—and humans—are grounded in science, the specifics are entirely speculative. Part of me would like to believe that the result doesn’t seem like science fiction to some readers because the details are convincing, or at least presented with a straight face, which disguises how big of a conceptual jump I’m actually taking. I try to write stories in which the speculative elements shade imperceptibly into the real world, and the division between the two isn’t always clear. This is as much a strategic choice as an artistic one: I’m always concerned that scientifically literate readers will object to my leaps of logic—as many of them did with “The Boneless One”—so I try to disguise the gaps as well as I can. If it works, it’s often because I’ve nudged the odds in my favor, baking the least plausible elements into the premise of the story itself.

And as much as I’d like to write stories that have the look and feel of more traditional science fiction, I’m not sure I can. Science fiction is an incredibly rich field, crammed with talented writers who are better at that kind of story than I could ever be, and I’m happy to stick to my own peculiar niche while leaving the future to others. The few attempts I’ve made at dealing with aliens, for instance, haven’t been all that successful, and whenever I try something more conceptually ambitious, I start to feel a little like the Dean on Community: “Time travel is really hard to write about!” But I know that I can write pretty good stories in my own vein, and a fair number of readers seem to enjoy them. For me, that’s more than enough. I’m writing for others in the only way I know how: by telling stories that have a reasonable hope of living up to my own standards, in as engaging a fashion as I can. The result may look a little strange—or not strange enough—but believe me, they’re better than anything I could cook up if I forced myself to write in a mode that didn’t fit my own tastes and interests. And if readers could tell how speculative these stories really were, I’m not sure they would have gotten published in the first place.

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July 11, 2013 at 9:11 am

Inventing “The Whale God,” Part 1

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Notebook page for "The Whale God"

Going back to reread your notes for a story that you’ve since written and published can be a disorienting experience. Once a story is in print, there’s a tendency, even by the author, to see it in a new light: it seems permanent, fixed, inevitable. Over time, you start to forget the long chain of discrete, sometimes arbitrary decisions that shaped the plot along the way, or the fact that it could easily have ended up going in a radically different direction. That’s why it’s worth jotting down a record of your initial thoughts on a potential story, even if you aren’t sure if the project will go anywhere. You’ll probably need to refer to it down the line to remind yourself of why you felt like writing about this idea in the first place, and later on, its record of wrong turns and momentary inspirations can be a rewarding one to revisit. (Incidentally, this is why I always start brainstorming every story on a physical sheet of paper, ideally in a notebook, and I follow Francis Ford Coppola’s advice by writing the date at the top of each page.)

In the case of my novelette “The Whale God,” which ultimately became the cover story for the September 2013 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, the process of working out the bones of the plot took me into some unexpected places. The germ of the story came, as it often does, from an article in a science magazine—in this case, a piece in Discover on whale beachings and their possible connection to sonar. When I came across it, I was systematically looking for ideas, digging through the large pile of magazines that I’ve accumulated over the years for this specific purpose, and I knew at once that this was a subject that I’d enjoy exploring, which is often the crucial first step. At that point, I didn’t know when or where the story would be set, but I wasn’t bothered by this: as I’ve noted before, for a work of speculative fiction, it’s often best to let the setting arise from the problems that the story itself presents, which allows the result to seem logical and organic.

Notebook page for "The Whale God"

My first thought was that it would be a contemporary story set in some interesting region of the world, preferably one that would allow me to incorporate elements of apparent fantasy or mythology that could then be given a scientific rationale. (To the extent that most of the stories I’ve published have a formula, it’s that they initially present fantastic events, then explain them in reasonably plausible scientific terms, which is basically what the The X-Files does in reverse.) Looking back at my notes, I see that I’d originally thought about setting the story in Greenland, which would certainly make for a fascinating location. Later, I was drawn to the potential of Vietnam, which has a thriving whale cult—and a legacy of tales of hungry ghosts—that I knew I could to put to use. In particular, I was intrigued by the possibility of connecting infrasound, with its link to whale beachings, to ghost sightings, which one line of thinking has attributed to low-frequency vibrations and their effect on the human brain and eye.

As soon as I’d gotten this far, however, I ran into a problem that only occurs after you’ve written a handful of stories. In 2011, Analog had published a novelette of mine called “Kawataro,” which had certain similarities to the plot I’d sketched out: it takes place in an East Asian country, centers on elements of local mythology, and ultimately provides a rational explanation for what initially seems like a supernatural event. I didn’t want to repeat myself too blatantly, so I began to consider and discard various options for what became “The Whale God” based on how closely they recalled my previous work, which is something that I suspect many writers need to do, even if they don’t often talk about it. In the end, I decided that the best way to differentiate the two stories would be to give “The Whale God” a period setting, as I’d done with my story “Ernesto.” Tomorrow, I’ll go into more detail about what this involved, and about how I felt when I realized, rather to my surprise, that I was going to write a story set during the Vietnam War.

This is part one of a three-part post. For the next two installments, please see here and here.

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July 1, 2013 at 8:54 am

The anthropic principle of fiction

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The next time someone tells you that one of your stories is implausible, you might want to remind them of how implausible they are. Setting aside the point that life in this galaxy, despite what our rational minds may tell us, seems to be extraordinarily rare, the fact that our universe can sustain life at all is almost beyond belief. If the value of even one of a handful of fundamental constants were even slightly different, there couldn’t be any complex structures, like stars; and if the age of the universe didn’t happen to fall, for the moment, into a certain narrow range, there wouldn’t be any planets. This is the anthropic principle, which states, very broadly, that the current habitable state of the universe is predicated on a series of massive coincidences—but if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be here to observe it. Since we wouldn’t exist otherwise, it’s hard to appreciate how unlikely this really is. The universe’s strangeness is an inseparable precondition of the fact that we’re here to tell stories about it. As a result, we tend to take it for granted.

This also turns out to be a remarkably useful principle for writing fiction. If the reader is going to suspend disbelief, it helps if the plot takes place in a setting—which can be as large as the universe or as small as a single person’s mind—that has been invisibly tuned, from the very first line, to make the story possible. My own story “Ernesto,” which appeared in the March 2012 issue of Analog, provides a convenient illustration. I wanted to write a story—and there are some spoilers ahead—in which people suffering from cancer were cured by going to a holy shrine that exposed them to erysipelas bacteria, with the resulting infection driving the cancer away. Needless to say, this is a fairly farfetched premise that poses a number of storytelling problems: an erysipelas infection would be obvious to any doctor in a modern hospital, and I wanted to save this revelation for the end to preserve the mystery. The solution, I concluded, was to set the story in the past, perhaps during wartime, when doctors were stretched thin. When I decided that the most suitable shrine for my purposes was that of St. John of the Cross, who died of erysipelas and is buried in Segovia in Spain, it seemed clear that the best setting for the story was the Spanish Civil War. And if I was going to do all that, well, obviously my hero had to be Hemingway.

And the funny thing about “Ernesto” is that if I’ve done my job correctly, this line of reasoning shouldn’t be obvious: it should look like I set out to write about Hemingway himself, when in fact the largest elements of the story—character, setting, theme—were actually a consequence, derived retroactively, of what seem like minor details. Ideally, then, when I arrive at my solution, it seems inevitable, an organic result of the story I’ve written, when in fact it was anything but. A similar process is visible in my novelette “Kawataro,” in which I ended up writing a story set in a fishing community of the deaf in modern Japan by reasoning backward from a tiny scientific detail. Like “Ernesto,” “Kawataro” could have been set anywhere (it was originally inspired by an article about deaf Bedouins), but when it comes to preparing the reader for the final twist, some settings are better than others. This leads me to what I see as a very powerful rule for writing this kind of fiction: the largest elements of the story should be determined by its least plausible details. If I’d started with a setting I liked, and then tried to shoehorn in the twist, the reader would object at once. But in this case, by the time the twist arrives, it seems relatively logical, but only because the story has been structured around it.

This is the anthropic principle of fiction. Readers will happily accept almost any premise when it’s introduced in the first few pages, but as the story continues, they’ll grow increasingly skeptical of any plot element that doesn’t seem to follow from that initial set of rules—so you’d better make sure that the world in which the story takes place has been fine-tuned to allow whatever implausibilities you later decide to include. I recently went through this process yet again, while writing a novelette that I hope to submit to Analog soon. It’s set during the Vietnam War, in the days leading up to the Tet Offensive, but only because this seemed like the best setting for the story I wanted to tell, which revolves around a stranded whale. I could have put the whale in California or Greenland—both of which I seriously considered—but because of its whale cult, as well as a few other reasons I won’t mention yet, Vietnam seemed best. The result is a story that is emphatically about Vietnam, with all the thematic weight that implies, but I never would have arrived there if I hadn’t reasoned backward to find the time and place best suited for the surprises I had in mind. Whether or not a story works is another matter. But it’s always best to start it with a bit of intelligent design.

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September 26, 2012 at 8:57 am

Writing the detailed outline, part 2

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Yesterday, I spoke about how whenever I start work on a novel or short story, I begin by drafting a detailed outline that often approaches the length of the final manuscript itself. This may sound like a huge “outline,” but it seems marginally less insane when you realize that it’s actually my second or third outline, depending on how you define it. The first outline, at least for a novel, comes in the form of a five- to six-page synopsis to my publisher, in which I briefly summarize what I see as the plot, based on a few weeks of mulling it over. The second outline, which I develop concurrently with the first, is a more detailed breakdown that aims to lay out the action chapter by chapter, at least for the first big section of story. (For reasons that I’ve mentioned before, I try not to outline an entire novel at once, but to save some unanswered questions for later in the process.) And it’s this second outline, which is basically just a list of chapters with a few brief notes, that I need to turn into something more substantial.

And I do it a chapter at a time, usually a chapter a day, for however long it takes. (My novels, incidentally, tend to have between fifty or sixty chapters for a manuscript of 100,000 words.) For City of Exiles, I did two detailed chapter outlines per day, which I’ve since decided is too intense a routine: I could keep it up for one book, but not for much longer, at least not without burning out entirely. A chapter a day is a much more manageable pace, and it also dovetails nicely with how my brain works. In outlining, as in everything else, it’s often best to focus on one thing at a time: one beat, one scene, one chapter, as if the rest of the novel didn’t exist, even if it’s always at the back of your mind. Devoting one day to outlining an entire chapter allows you to give it the attention that it deserves, without worrying about the second chapter that you have scheduled for later that afternoon. And it allows you to ruminate on that one chapter during those moments of daily downtime that are so crucial to the creative process: washing dishes, running errands, taking a walk in the park.

So how does a typical day look? When it begins, I generally have some general notes on the chapter in a text file, an additional set of more detailed research notes on any technical matters that I expect to encounter, and a stack of index cards with miscellaneous ideas. (For more information on the index card system, see here, or Kenneth Atchity’s useful book A Writer’s Time.) I try to review my notes as early as possible, ideally before my morning shower—which is the best thinking time in the world—or, increasingly, at bedtime the night before. And my first goal is to come up with the most basic possible structure for the overall chapter, with David Mamet’s three questions as a guide:

1. What is the scene about?
2. What is the protagonist’s objective?
3. How do we know when we’re done?

These questions are so helpful for guiding my thinking that I include them as a footer in my outline document in Word, along with a fourth question, which I added after reading Mamet’s famous memo to the writers of The Unit: Why now? And my first order of business is to structure the chapter around these questions, in a chunk of narrative that has a beginning, middle, and end. (Later, of course, I may seek to cut the beginning and end of each scene, and jump from middle to middle, but I’ve found that it’s useful to think in these terms at the outline stage.)

Once I have what seems like a workable narrative shape, I begin to flesh it out, putting myself into the scene as much as possible, writing it from one beat to the next, orienting myself with the structure I’ve mentally developed, and thinking whenever I can in terms of actual paragraphs. The result, as you can see in these pictures of the outline for my story “Kawataro,” is a series of sentence fragments, telegraphic, joined with dashes, a series of reminders to jog my memory when I actually start to write. Once I’ve finished a draft of the outline, I break for lunch, take an hour off, and often do a mind map to generate one last round of ideas, after which I polish the entire thing one last time. In the end, I’ll have a comprehensive outline of a single chapter, which I copy and paste into my general outline for the entire book. The next day, I do it again. And if all goes well, weeks or months later, when I start writing the chapter itself, I’ll open the file, look at my outline, and still remember what the hell I was talking about.

Written by nevalalee

February 10, 2012 at 9:29 am

Packing up…and a couple of milestones

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Nine months after I started work on the sequel to The Icon Thief, City of Exiles is finally done. It isn’t quite official yet: I still have another proofreading and polishing session early next week, and I’m scheduled to get comments from a valued reader later today. But at this point, the novel is essentially locked, and not a moment too soon: after delivering it on Wednesday, we’re moving to our new house on Thursday, which will probably knock me out of the game for a while. At the moment, though, I’m very happy with this novel, and hope you’ll enjoy it, too, after it appears sometime in December 2012. (For what it’s worth, this publication date is close to final, at least as far as I can tell.)

In other fun news, Analog has picked up my novelette “The Voices”—sort of an homage to John Crowley’s Little, Big by way of H.P. Lovecraft—which means that this will be the second year in a row when they’ve published at least two of my stories. (The other one, “Ernesto,” is still stuck somewhere in the pipeline.) In the meantime, my story “The Boneless One” is still available on newsstands, with a free audio version scheduled to be released next month by StarShipSofa. If you haven’t picked up a copy, you might want to grab it soon, because I’m hoping to spend a couple of days next week talking about how the novelette was written, as I did for “Kawataro.” Meanwhile, it’s back to packing. Only thirty boxes of books to go…

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September 23, 2011 at 8:47 am

The uncanny influence of Stephen King

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Over the past year, I’ve sold two novelettes to Analog that have strong overtones of horror, a genre in which I’d previously displayed limited interest as a writer. “Kawataro” is my homage to Japanese horror movies, while the upcoming “The Boneless One” is sort of a haunted house story and murder mystery set aboard a research yacht in the Atlantic Ocean. I didn’t set out to write stories this creepy, but seem to have arrived at them by accident. The more I think about it, though, the more I suspect that they reflect the influence of a writer whose impact on my work is invisible but pervasive. He’s a novelist of massive fluency and technical proficiency, enormously inventive and imaginative, with a real gift for character and setting. He seems capable of doing just about anything within the conventions of the popular novel—although he rarely knows how to end a story. And through sheer cultural dominance alone, he’s had a subterranean influence on a whole generation of writers. He’s Stephen King.

King’s lasting mark on writers my age reflects one of the fundamental truths of fiction: if you want to change your readers’ lives forever, get them while they’re young. I don’t remember the first King novel I read, but it was probably The Talisman, picked up when I was a fifth grader as a tattered paperback at the much mourned Roskie & Wallace (later known as Gray Wolf Books) in San Leandro, California. Over the next two years, I worked my way through most of King’s oeuvre, the high points of which were, and remain, It, The Shining, Pet Sematary, and The Stand. Was I too young to be reading King? Sure. But that’s the best time to be reading his novels—when you’re just a little too young for the violence and sex and ideas they contain, so they seem to promise all of the primal power that fiction affords. The comments on this AV Club article imply that my experience was shared by millions of young men (and women) who came of age in the last thirty years. As a result, I think that King will influence, and has influenced, the writing of this generation in ways that will become increasingly clear as time goes on.

Stephen King

King, although far from a faultless writer, is certainly the most powerful popular novelist alive. His medium is horror, but very rarely has this seemed like a commercial calculation. Rather, it feels like an inner compulsion, a sense that horror and the supernatural provide him with the best way of exploring the themes to which he repeatedly returns—childhood, family, the inevitability and unfairness of death, the power of imagination, the memory of place. That willingness to follow character and theme wherever they lead, all the way into the darkness, makes King utterly unlike most other mainstream novelists. Reading It again two years ago, I was simultaneously impressed by how convincing and rich these thematic elements remained, and how dated the horror had become. It no longer has the power to scare me—though the thought of Tim Curry in clown makeup might—but it still has the power to move me. It might be my favorite popular novel in any genre.

Not all of King’s books have aged as well. The Talisman, on rereading, remains hugely inventive and textured, but structurally all over the map; the uncut version of The Stand is one of the most ambitious of all popular novels, but its mythic confrontation of good versus evil hasn’t dated well, and it’s also clear that King had no idea how to end it (a shortcoming that affects nearly all of his books). Pet Sematary, though, is almost flawlessly imagined and controlled, up to its grand guignol conclusion, which strikes me now as a failure of nerve, while still undeniably effective. And King’s best short stories are particularly fine—they may end up being his most lasting work. But his real legacy is impossible to measure. For thirty years and counting, through sheer skill, scale, and luck, he wound up shaping the inner lives of almost every young person who saw a future for himself, or herself, in imaginative literature. No other living author can claim nearly as much.

Written by nevalalee

May 20, 2011 at 10:17 am

A preview of coming distractions

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As I continue to push forward on the sequel to The Icon Thief—as of this week, I’ve finally made it past the halfway point—I find myself sidetracked by a number of welcome distractions. On Wednesday, I had a pleasant phone chat with Richard A. Lovett, the incredibly prolific author of short science fiction and nonfiction, who will be writing up a one-page profile of me for Analog. These profiles are technically supposed to appear in the same issue as the subject’s third published Analog story, although in my case it will either be the fourth (“The Boneless One”) or fifth (“Ernesto”). (It’s been quite the banner year for short fiction: after a gap of more than five years between my first and second published stories, I’m looking to publish three more in Analog this calendar year alone, along with a fourth in the Clamoring Spring anthology.)

I had a good time talking with Rick Lovett, whose work I’ve greatly enjoyed in Analog in the past. We spoke about many of the subjects that I’ve covered on this blog before—the writing and brainstorming process, what makes a good story, the appeal of science fiction, the influence of The X-Files on my work, and more—and I also learned a lot from Rick, who over the past eight or nine years has quickly become one of the most prolific contributors in the magazine’s history. I’m hoping to chat with him again one of these days, and I’m also looking forward to seeing the results of the interview. (My wife, overhearing my end of the conversation from the next room, says that I came off as reasonably smart. I guess we’ll find out soon enough.)

An even more unexpected distraction is the fact that “Kawataro” may soon be going out for movie rights. I haven’t spoken much about film rights so far, mostly because I don’t want to jinx it, but also because the process is so extended and unpredictable that there hasn’t been much to talk about at this point. Suffice to say that The Icon Thief is out for rights as well, and while there’s been some degree of interest, it’s also a daunting prospect: it’s a dense, layered novel with a lot of plot that would need to be reworked for a movie of manageable size, which would take a highly motivated screenwriter or producer to accomplish. “Kawataro,” on the other hand, is a much more natural fit for adaptation—not a lot of plot, but a good, spooky setting, a decent twist, and a monster that hasn’t been seen a million times before. So who knows? Something may come of it. Though hopefully not in 3-D. Stay tuned for further details.

Written by nevalalee

May 13, 2011 at 9:26 am

Coming soon: “Ernesto”

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Following up conveniently on my most recent post, yesterday I received an acceptance email from Analog for my short story “Ernesto.” This is the first acceptance I’ve received since the magazine switched to an electronic submission process, and while I’m always gratified to sell them a story, I do really miss Stanley Schmidt’s old typewritten letters, which he’d been cranking out for something like thirty years. If nothing else, I’m glad that I was able to publish a few stories under the old system, so that I have a couple of typewritten acceptances lying around the house (along with an equal or greater number of rejection slips, which are also a badge of honor).

The sale of “Ernesto” is particularly satisfying for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s my first sale to Analog that wasn’t a novelette, but a short story, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is a form in which I’ve never felt entirely comfortable. “Ernesto” is one of my first attempts at a more classically structured short story, so it’s nice to see it published. It’s also my fifth story bought by Analog to date, which is a number that has some psychological importance. Isaac Asimov explains why in the first volume of his wonderful memoirs, In Memory Yet Green:

[At a meeting of the Queens Science Fiction League in 1940], I won a science fiction quiz given to the membership…One of the questions was: “What is the name of the youngest well-established science-fiction author?” (By “well-established,” it was carefully explained, it meant someone who had published more than five stories in the professional magazines.)

The answer was “Isaac Asimov” and I was happy, for I was the youngest in a new category. Still a child prodigy!

Asimov, by the way, was twenty at the time. It’s taken me a while longer, but I’ll catch up to him one of these days! (Or perhaps not.)

Anyway, I’m glad to know that “Ernesto”—which I first wrote over a year ago—will finally see print. It’s especially amusing in light of the apparent confusion over whether my stories are science fiction or not, because “Ernesto” is by far the least sci-fi of any of my stories—it’s a historical mystery, with some paranormal overtones, set during the Spanish Civil War, with the young Ernest Hemingway as a central character. For the rest, you’ll have to wait until the story comes out, hopefully late this year or early next. And if my attempt to wring every last drop out of “Kawataro” is any indication, you’ll be hearing a lot about it here.

Written by nevalalee

May 4, 2011 at 10:22 am

So what is science fiction?

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Like most authors, although I don’t always like to admit it, I’m very interested in other people’s reactions to my work. One of the singular things about being a writer these days is that one has access to a huge range of opinions about one’s writing: on review sites, blogs, discussion boards, and all the other venues for talking about fiction that didn’t exist even twenty years ago. As a result, every few days I’ll snoop around the web to see what people are saying. (One of my few disappointments following the publication of “Kawataro” was that it coincided with the demise of the Analog readers’ forum, where I had once been able to count on a spirited discussion—or at least a ruthless nitpicking—of my stories.)

For the most part, readers seem to enjoy my stuff well enough, and it’s always gratifying to find a positive review online. Over time, though, I’ve noticed a particular theme being struck repeatedly even by people who like my work: they don’t think it’s science fiction at all. Now, I’m pretty sure that my novelettes and short stories are science fiction—if they weren’t, they  wouldn’t be published in Analog, which doesn’t have much interest in anything else—but I can understand the source of the confusion. Thanks mostly to my X-Files roots, my stories are set in the present day. They all take place on this planet. I don’t do aliens or robots. And while the plots do turn on science, they’re more often structured as contemporary mysteries where the solution depends on scientific information, which I gather is fairly uncommon.

It’s worth asking, then, whether we can come up with a definition of science fiction broad enough to include both my work and, say, Kim Stanley Robinson’s. (Or even L. Ron Hubbard’s.) TV Tropes, usually a good starting point for this sort of thing, despite its sometimes breathless fangirl tone, argues that science fiction hinges on technology:

The one defining(-ish, definitions differ) trait of Science Fiction is that there is technology that doesn’t exist in the time period the story is written in.

Which automatically disqualifies most of my stories, since I don’t have much interest in technology for its own sake, at least not as a narrative device. I’m also not especially interested in world-building, another hallmark of conventional science fiction, if only because so many other writers are better at it than I am.

So if my stories don’t include technology or alien worlds, where does that leave me? Wikipedia comes to the rescue, defining science fiction as dealing with “imagined innovations in science or technology,” including one particular subcategory:

Stories that involve discovery or application of new scientific principles, such as time travel or psionics, or new technology, such as nanotechnology, faster-than-light travel or robots.

Which is basically where I fit in, as long as you stretch the definition to include connections between previously unrelated scientific principles. “Inversus,” my first published novelette, is basically about psionics, but links it to a number of existing phenomena, like situs inversus. “The Last Resort” takes a known phenomenon—limnic eruptions—and transfers it to a novel part of the world, with a speculative explanation of how it might be caused by human activity. “Kawataro” fictionalizes the case of the Al-Sayyid Bedouin, moves it to Japan, and connects it to another medical mystery. And my upcoming “The Boneless One” begins with a real scientific project, the effort to sample genetic diversity in the world’s oceans, and speculates as to how it might lead to unexpected—and murderous—consequences.

Much of my favorite fiction is about such connections, whether it’s the paranoid synthetic vision of Foucault’s Pendulum, Illuminatus!, or Gravity’s Rainbow, or the constructive impulse of the great science fiction novels. (Dune, for instance, gains much of its fascination from the variety of Frank Herbert’s interests—ecology, energy policy, the Bedouin, the story of T.E. Lawrence—and from how he juxtaposes them in astonishing ways.) My love of connections is what led me to focus on my two genres of choice, science fiction and suspense, both of which reward the ability to see connections that haven’t been noticed in print. And the ultimate playground for ideas is science. The science is real; the connections are plausible, but fictional. Put them together, and you get science fiction. Or something like it, anyway.

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.

The making of a novelette (part 3)

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In his nice little book Writing the Novel, Lawrence Block, while describing how he incorporates all kinds of disparate elements into his fiction, uses an image for the creative process that I’ve always thought was particularly appropriate:

I may borrow a bit of physical description, for example, or a mannerism, or an oddity of speech. I may take an incident in the life of someone I know and use it as an item of background data in the life of one of my characters. Little touches of this sort get threaded into my characters much as bits of ribbon and cloth are woven into a songbird’s nest—for color, to tighten things up, and because they caught my eye and seemed to belong there.

Most writers, I imagine, can relate to this. As carefully as any novel or story may be planned, many of its constituent parts will end up being the result of chance, impulse, or random inspiration. “Kawataro” is no exception. Although what I’ve described so far might sound like a fairly rational process, that rationality, if it exists at all, occurs mostly in the intermediate planning stage. When it comes to the details of the novel itself—the characters, the scenes, the small touches that make a story live—the process is much more intuitive, and the results can take even the author by surprise.

The backgrounds of the characters in “Kawataro,” for instance, were a combination of pragmatism and personal inclination. For my viewpoint character, Hakaru, I had a particular type in mind: a smart, observant outsider, but not a scientist, which would allow me to explain certain concepts to the reader in a way that was hopefully unobtrusive. I’ve used the figure of a journalist in a number of stories (including the upcoming “Warning Sign” and “The Boneless One”), partly because I’m married to one, but also because it’s a job that involves asking questions and going into unusual places, which is useful from a storytelling point of view. For a change of pace, I decided to have Hakaru (named, incidentally, for this man) be a videographer with a research background. I knew that projects like the one I was describing were usually videotaped, so he had a good reason for being there. Plus I’ve done a lot of video production myself, so I could easily describe his work if necessary (although it ended up not entering the story at all).

My other main character, Dr. Nakaya, was a bit more determined by the plot I had already sketched out. She had to be a scientist involved in the study of language formation among the burakumin of my fictional village. At some point, it occurred to me that she might also be a burakumin herself. Once these details had been established, her character quickly fell into place: intelligent, slightly severe, but emotionally involved with the predicament of these villagers in ways that were only gradually revealed. As for the other characters, they were mostly functional types—a few fell into the category of characters, familiar from The X-Files, destined only to be victims—but I tried to invest them with at least some specificity. (For some reason, I love Miyamoto’s pink shirt, which is inspired by a similar shirt worn by a figure in The Cove.) And the three sinister children at the heart of the story were clearly rooted in my memories of spooky kids from The Grudge and similar movies, with one of them wearing a red raincoat that was my homage to Don’t Look Now. (It’s an homage that would seem overly obvious in a straight horror movie, but which works pretty well in a different genre.)

Now that I had a general plot and a cast of characters, all that remained was to fill out the story itself. Many of the scenes were dictated by the shape of the conventional story I’d chosen: an outsider arrives in a small town, meets the locals, is confronted with violent and seemingly supernatural events, and finally discovers a rational explanation. In the details, though, I was free to indulge myself. The scene in which a little girl with a bouncing ball watches Dr. Nakaya argue with Miyamoto, then later implicates her in his murder, was a straight homage to The Third Man. Many of the visual details of the story—the rain, the figure in the woods, the children’s drawings unexpectedly revealing a monster—were taken from the vocabulary of horror movies. The layout of my imaginary village determined the beats of the chase scenes. And the image of the dead innkeeper, folded up like a frog, came from a dream I had over ten years ago, which I was glad to finally use here.

In the end, then, I had a story constructed from many dissimilar elements—an article in a science magazine, a Japanese legend, a few character ideas, memories of favorite movies, even dreams—which all came together, I hope, in a seamless and inevitable way. Tomorrow, I’ll wind up the discussion by talking a bit about the revision and submission process, and how I feel about the story that resulted. (For other installments in this series, please see here, here, and here.)

Written by nevalalee

April 25, 2011 at 10:20 am

The making of a novelette (part 2)

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Note: As before, spoilers for my novelette “Kawataro” follow.

Audiences dislike formulas for a reason. There are few things more depressing than realizing you’re about to sit through a movie or TV episode that you’ve seen, in various forms, a thousand times before. (See: almost every recent episode of Glee.) But there are also times when, like it or not, formulas can be useful. Formulas are really just story structures that have proven effective over time. And a good formula, if not relied upon exclusively, can provide a narrative line on which the writer can hang more interesting things—character, atmosphere, information—while trusting that a classic story form will hopefully keep the reader engaged. For “Kawataro,” then, after deciding on the basic scientific story, I decided to structure the plot itself around one of my favorite science fiction conventions. In X-Files parlance, this was going to be a Monster of the Week.

It’s important to remember that the original premise of “Kawataro” could have been used as the basis for any number of stories. The primary elements were an isolated Japanese village, a community of deaf burakumin, and a genetic syndrome that would be revealed only at the end of the story. I could have assembled these pieces in all kinds of ways. “Kawataro” could have been a love story, with the heroine falling for one of her patients and trying to figure out why he was growing weak; it could have been a straight adventure, with a team of scientists searching for a remote village of the deaf; it even could have been a simple medical mystery, with the story dryly following the main character as she tested and rejected various hypotheses. (I’ve seen a lot of stories like this in Analog.) For whatever reason, though—perhaps because I’d been attracted by the narrative possibilities of myxedema madness—the idea that seized my attention was something closer to horror, verging on a ghost story, which meant that I almost certainly needed a creature to serve as a red herring.

So what would this creature look like? As opposed to the early stages of the process, where I could transfer the setting from Israel to Japan without batting an eye, by now, I was operating under severe constraints—which, as I’ve said before, is where creative breakthroughs usually occur. My creature had to be Japanese. It had to be a part of local folklore. It had to be capable of driving the plot forward, probably through a series of killings. And it had to be adequately explained by the science I’d cooked up so far. It seemed to me, then, that the ideal creature was a sort of Japanese vampire. And after I’d poked around online for a bit, it didn’t take long to come up with the figure of the kappa, or kawataro, which fit my purposes admirably: it worked for the setting, it was suitably mysterious, and best of all, its traditional description was startlingly similar to the symptoms of extreme hypothyroidism. (This is the sort of serendipity, familiar to all writers, that tells you that you’re on the right track.)

At this point, the major elements of the plot had fallen into place: a series of mysterious killings in a Japanese village, blamed on the figure of the kawataro, but later revealed to be something else entirely. (I called my creature a kawataro, instead of kappa, by the way, because I preferred the sound of it and because the literal meaning of kawataro—”river boy,” as opposed to kappa, “river child”—served as a clue to the reader.) I was pretty happy when I arrived at this narrative structure, because I knew that the device of periodic killings, while familiar, would serve to hold the reader’s attention and allow me to deliver a lot of atmosphere and suspense. I also knew that this was a story I could write, that would engage me, and that I could probably put together in publishable form in less than two weeks. (The knowledge that a story is squarely in one’s wheelhouse means a lot, especially when the really hard work is about to begin.)

The next step was to drill deeper. Although I only had a few days allocated to pure research, it was still enough time for me to quickly read a couple of books on Japanese villages, a very useful New Yorker article, and the wonderful book Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings, which I’d been meaning to read anyway. I rewatched The Cove, one of my favorite recent documentaries, taking notes on setting and atmosphere. Some articles on the burakumin gave me the idea of structuring the conflict in the early part of the story around the merger of two villages. Bit by bit, then, I was fleshing out a world that had taken shape in my imagination, and, just as importantly, I was getting an idea of the feel of the story, which I was sensing would be a homage to Japanese horror: The Cove meets The Grudge. Next week, I’ll be talking about how I turned all of these pieces into an actual story, and what happened when I sent it out for submission. (For other installments in this series, please see here, here, and here.)

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April 22, 2011 at 10:08 am

The making of a novelette (part 1)

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Note: This post contains some unavoidable spoilers about my novelette “Kawataro.” You’ve been warned!

With all due respect to Faulkner, I think it’s occasionally useful for a writer to be able to sit down and will a story into existence, if not for the money—which is rarely a worthwhile motivation—then at least for the practice. There’s something uniquely satisfying about taking a story from conception to final draft in only a couple of weeks, whether the goal is to satisfy an untapped creative urge or simply to fill a hole in one’s schedule. In the case of “Kawataro,” I had a break of roughly a month in the writing of The Icon Thief, when I was waiting to get some comments from my agent, and I decided to fill the time by writing a couple of short stories. One story, “Ernesto,” has yet to be published, although I hope you’ll have a chance to read it at some point. The other was “Kawataro,” the development of which provides a—hopefully—interesting illustration of how I work.

“Kawataro” began, as many of my stories do, with a trip to the library. Whenever I need an idea for a story, I head for the periodicals section of the Sulzer Regional branch and pick up a large stack of magazines, preferably Discover or Scientific American. (I used to have a big collection of back issues at home, purchased off eBay for the specific purpose of generating story ideas. These were left behind after my move to Chicago, but not before generating ideas for “The Last Resort,” “Warning Sign,” and “The Boneless One.”) My usual method is to browse until I see one or two articles that get my attention, and then to daydream about possible connections or plot ideas. For “Kawataro,” the inciting article was Margalit Fox’s story in Discover about the Ay-Sayyid Bedouins of Israel, who, because their population contains a high percentage of genetically deaf individuals, have developed their own unique sign language. (Fox’s book Talking Hands tells more about this fascinating community.)

So how did an article about the Ay-Sayyid Bedouins become a novelette about a remote Japanese fishing village? As usual, it was a combination of chance, inclination, and the inexplicable workings of the writing process. After reading the article, I had a vague idea for a story about a scientist trying to solve a mystery involving a community of the deaf, which could only be explained when it became clear that her patients were suffering from a previously undiagnosed genetic syndrome. (This may seem like an oddly specific story structure, but it’s actually a variation on the plot of my first Analog story, “Inversus.”) Looking into conditions resulting in deafness, I found that Pendred syndrome had the characteristics I needed: it caused deafness and hypothyroidism, which I thought might be useful for a medical mystery, though I didn’t yet know what the mystery was. Then I stumbled across this article, which contained the following fateful statement:

Goitre is the most variable syndrome in Pendred syndrome and is caused by impaired thyroxin production because of an organization defect. Goitre prevalence is dependent of the daily iodine intake and is, for example, seldom seen in Japan, where the daily iodine intake is high.

This may not seem like much, but when I read it, my receptivity to potential material was particularly strong. At once, I saw the outlines of my story: a Japanese village, a community of the deaf, and a syndrome that had gone undiagnosed because of the local diet. (I even suspected that a burakumin community might provide a suitably endogamous population for such a syndrome to take hold.) Now I had the scientific backbone of the story, and if I were just trying to write a short vignette, it might have been enough. But I was planning to write a novelette, which requires a real plot, and hopefully some action and suspense along the way. What next? Tomorrow, I’ll be talking more about how I hit on a structure for the plot itself, and how the mysterious figure of the kappa, or kawataro, first entered the picture. (For the remaining installments in this series, please see here, here, and here.)

The 10,000 word solution

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Illustration by Sidney Paget for "The Five Orange Pips"

Should an aspiring author write short stories or novels? If you’re getting your MFA, you won’t have much of a choice: as perceptive observers have pointed out elsewhere, the machinery of most writing programs is geared toward the production of short stories, to the point where they often don’t know how to deal with novelists at all. And if you’re trying to write for a living, your choices are equally limited: while it’s very hard to make a living as a novelist, at least it’s still possible, while not even the most prolific author can survive solely through short story sales. But if you’re somewhere between the two extremes—say, just starting to figure out that you want to write, but not sure if you want to make a life of it—the decision to pursue one form or the other is a crucial question with no obvious answer.

First, a basic point: writing short stories is hard. Harder, in some respects, than writing a novel. In most cases, a novel gains its power from the cumulative impact of its episodes, rather than from one particularly strong idea (though there are exceptions), so as long as a writer structures the story properly and creates interesting characters, the reader will be reasonably satisfied, even if the author doesn’t hit the target exactly. With a short story, there’s no room for error. There isn’t a lot of space for a writer to build narrative momentum, which means that the entire story—especially in the mystery and science fiction genres—has to turn on one good idea. And if the idea isn’t a strong one, not only will the reader dislike the story, but it probably won’t be published at all.

At this point, I should confess that I don’t really write short stories—at least not the kind I’ve described above. All the stories that I’ve published or sold have been novelettes, which is a rather different form. John Gardner’s definition of the novella, in The Art of Fiction, is probably the best place to start:

The novella can be defined only as a work shorter than a novel…and both longer and more episodic than a short story. I use the word “episodic” loosely here, meaning only that the novella usually has a series of climaxes, each more intense than the last, though it may be built—and perhaps in fact ought to be built—of one continuous action.

This description fits my own work pretty closely. My novelettes tend to be on the long side for short fiction (10,000-12,000 words is about average), with three distinct acts and a structure loosely based on the conventions of mystery or suspense fiction, though with a scientific twist. They’re novels in miniature, or embryonic novels, and have more in common with their longer equivalents than with the very specific requirements of the short story.

Illustration by Sidney Paget for "The Blue Carbuncle"

Why have I adopted this hybrid form? For one thing, I write this way because I tend to think naturally in profluent plots, and the novelette is the shortest form in which such a plot can acquire real momentum. For another, the “short stories” I love best are really more like novelettes: nearly all of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, for instance, fall neatly into three acts and run somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 words. As a result, I understand the novelette in ways that I’m not sure I understand the classic short story, and it’s no accident that I’ve had much less success in writing conventional short fiction (though I do have one, “Warning Sign,” coming out in an anthology in a few months).

So where does that leave us with our opening question? As someone who loves both novels and short fiction, I’m glad I’ve done both: each form has taught me different things, and the lessons in one have shaped my work in the other. But though I’m clearly biased here, on a more practical level, I think that a writer might specifically benefit by writing novelettes—not novels, not short stories, but something in between. This approach, as I see it, solves a lot of problems. With practice, you can write a 10,000-word novelette in two or three weeks, as opposed to the year or more it might take to write a novel, and you’ll acquire many of the skills that a longer project demands. Plus you won’t get hung up on the technical perfection required by a publishable 3,000-word short story. Later, if you’re so inclined, you can scale your writing up or down, but in the meantime, there’s something to be said for aiming at the middle.

So where do you start? Tomorrow, using my own story “Kawataro” as an example, I’ll begin to discuss, step by step, how a novelette is made.

Written by nevalalee

April 20, 2011 at 10:03 am

Why science fiction?

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When I look at my writing from the past few years, I’m struck by a sharp division in my work, which sometimes resembles the output of two different authors. On the novel side, I’ve focused almost exclusively on suspense fiction, with the occasional literary touch: The Icon Thief is basically my take on the paranoid conspiracy novel, while its sequel—once called Midrash, currently untitled—is even more of a straight thriller. I love writing books like this, and one of the great pleasures of my recent life has been exploring the genre’s conventions and learning what makes such novels tick. But at the same time, I’ve been living an alternate, almost entirely separate life as a writer of short science fiction. And now that my novelette “Kawataro” is in stores, it’s probably worth asking why I write this stuff in the first place.

Because it certainly isn’t for the money. Analog‘s payment rate is pretty modest—at the moment, for a novelette, it’s between five and six cents a word—and while it still pays better than most other magazines, where payment can consist of nothing but a few contributors’ copies, devoting two or more weeks to writing a 12,000-word novelette isn’t an especially lucrative way of spending one’s time. And while I’m always immensely gratified to read reviews of my short fiction online, the fact remains that a writer can make a bigger impression with a single novel than with a dozen short stories. There doesn’t seem to be any rational reason, then, why I should spend my time writing stuff for Analog. And yet I still try to write at least a couple of short stories a year, and whenever I’m not writing one, I really miss it.

So why is that? The real question, I suppose, is why I write science fiction at all, instead of some other genre. (Mystery fiction, for one, has an honorable history, and there are still a couple of good genre magazines on the market.) Writers, not surprisingly, are drawn to science fiction for all sorts of reasons. Many of the writers in Analog, which remains the leading voice of hard science fiction, seem to have been brought to it by a deep love of science itself, with stories that methodically work out the details of a particular scientific problem. Other authors write science fiction because it gives them the opportunity to discuss major issues involving humanity’s future, to build entire worlds, or to allegorize a contemporary issue (as in Children of Men, which takes our reluctance to plan for the future and turns it into a world in which there is no future). Others, maybe most, are drawn to science fiction simply because it was the kind of fiction they loved best growing up.

This last reason comes fairly close for me, although it isn’t the whole story. Growing up, one of my favorite books was the wonderful anthology 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories, which I highly recommend if you can track down a copy. Reading these and similar stories—many of which I still know practically by heart—I was deeply impressed by their clarity, their precision, and above all their ingenuity. On the cinematic side, my favorite movie for many years was 2001, which, in turn, served as a gateway to such authors as Arthur C. Clarke, Orson Scott Card, and Robert Anton Wilson—the last of whom, in particular, remains one of my intellectual heroes. And I’ve already spoken of my love for The X-Files, which has given my stories much of their overall tone and shape.

Above all else, though, I love science fiction because it gives me a chance to make beautiful toys. The toymaking aspect of fiction has always been important to me, and hopefully this comes through in my novels, which I like to think of as intricate games between myself and the reader. And the science fiction short story—because of its love of ideas, its range of possible subjects, and the rewards it offers to ingenuity—has always been an ideal medium for play. While my stories occasionally tackle larger social themes, the motivation for writing them in the first place is always one of playfulness: I have an idea, an image, a twist, and want to see how far I can mislead the reader while still making the story an exciting one.  Writing novels is joyous work, but it’s still work. Writing short fiction, especially science fiction, is closer to a game. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s the greatest game in the world.

“Kawataro” is here!

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This is just a friendly reminder that the June issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, featuring my novelette “Kawataro,” is on newsstands now. You can probably find a copy in the periodicals section of your local Borders or Barnes & Noble, assuming that one still exists, as well as on Amazon’s Kindle. I’ll be writing a bit more about “Kawataro” and its origins next week, so you might want to pick it up soon—and let me know what you think! (Since the Analog readers’ forum seems to have been shut down indefinitely, this might be the best place to discuss it.)

Written by nevalalee

April 14, 2011 at 8:02 am

Learning from the masters: Darin Morgan and The X-Files

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Originally this post was going to be about The Simpsons, which has obviously been a major influence on everyone’s inner life, but since my wife pointed out that I could easily do a whole week’s worth of posts on the fourth season alone, I’ll be saving it for another day. Instead, since my novelette “Kawataro” will hopefully be appearing in bookstores next week, I’ll be talking about the work of art that has influenced my published fiction more than any other. Because until The Icon Thief comes out next year, I’m really just the author of this blog and three novelettes in Analog, with a fourth to come, all of which have been deeply influenced by The X-Files.

Television is a funny thing. One’s experience of it, more than any other art form (aside perhaps from music), is usually the product of timing and proximity. If you grew up in a house like most in America, in the days before our lives were taken over by other glowing rectangles, the television was always on, and your tastes were inevitably shaped by whatever happened to be on the air when you were at an impressionable age. I’m hugely thankful that I born at a time when I could watch the best years of The Simpsons as they aired—especially now that the glut of more recent episodes is driving those episodes out of syndication, so that many younger viewers won’t have seen them at all—but I’m even more grateful for the fact that I was thirteen years old on September 10, 1993, when The X-Files premiered.

Looking back, it’s hard to say why this particular show grabbed my imagination. At first, I was a little skeptical of the premise—I couldn’t see how these two FBI agents could have a new adventure every week and then never refer to it again—but once I got past the anthology format, I found that this was the television show that I’d been waiting for my entire life. It was suspenseful, beautifully crafted, often very clever, and built on a compelling sense of mystery and paranoia. (This was also the year in which I read Foucault’s Pendulum and saw JFK. Take that year away, and I’d be a different person entirely.) My discovery of a vast online fandom played a major role, as did the world of fanfic, where I wrote my earliest stories, and which set me on the course on which I continue today, at least as far as my short fiction is concerned.

The big lesson that The X-Files taught me was the importance of formula. Formulas play a huge role in all episodic television, where the pace of production means that writers and producers need to fall back on certain basic structures. Watching a television series over the course of multiple seasons is the easiest way to get a sense of a formula’s strengths and limitations. What set The X-Files apart is how it discovered, almost by accident, a formula of extraordinary versatility and suppleness: two investigators, an atmospheric location, and an inexplicable event. (It’s so good a formula that I’ve happily appropriated it for some of my own stories.) There’s something reassuring about how each episode falls into the same rhythms, and even more so when the show pushes against its own conventions—another illustration of the power of constraints.

Which brings me to Darin Morgan (whose Wikipedia page I created years ago, although I take no responsibility for its current state). Morgan is a television writer who wrote only four episodes of The X-Files and two more of Millennium, and yet his work continues to resonate. He was the Charlie Kaufman of television, long before anyone had ever heard of Charlie Kaufman: funny, ingenious, and formally inventive, with a deeply despairing view of existence, in which the true secret is not some government conspiracy but the fact that we all die alone. And his work was most interesting—notably in “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”—in its struggles against, and subtle contempt for, the show’s own limitations. Perhaps this is why Morgan fell silent for more than a decade: he needed the formula to give shape to his flights of originality, and without Mulder, Scully, and Frank Black, he was never the same. Which only demonstrates how powerful a formula can be.

(Even as I write this, though, I learn that he’s resurfaced as a writer for Tower Prep, of all things. I’m very curious about this…)

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