Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Lois Tilton

A case of “Stonebrood”

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The October 2015 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact

I’m very pleased to announce that the October issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact is finally available on newsstands and in digital form, with my novelette “Stonebrood” as this month’s lead story. (A big excerpt can be found online.) In her review for Locus, Lois Tilton provides as good a summary as any:

Marius is a firefighter with a slow-moving disaster on his hands—an underground coal fire that has been burning for at least fifty years, until officials were galvanized into action by a sinkhole that collapsed a highway and killed eight people. The problem: no way to tell how large the fire is and how many miles it has spread. The solution: tiny drones, resembling bees, that can be lowered down boreholes into the mine to map the fire. From there, attempts to extinguish it can begin.

Of course, it’s not quite as straightforward as it sounds. Trevor Quachri’s editorial note calls “Stonebrood” a “creepy” story, which is more or less right. And after “Cryptids,” which was meant as a kind of departure from my usual style, it represents a welcome return to the kind of story I’d like to think I do best.

Upon reading it over again, I was glad to find that I still like the result quite a bit, since it combines elements of the stories I’ve written for Analog in the past—an unusual setting, inexplicable events, a final scientific twist—with a tone that turned out to have unexpected affinities with my suspense novels. Elsewhere, Lois Tilton describes “Stonebrood” as “the most sciencey” of this month’s crop of stories in the major digests, including Analog, Asimov’s, and Fantasy & Science Fiction. I was gratified and a little surprised to read this, since I’ve often felt like a borderline impostor in those pages: unlike many writers of hard science fiction, I’m not a scientist by training, and whatever factual content exists in my work is usually there only because it enabled a specific plot. If anything, though, I’ve had to try harder to make the science work, and to tailor each story to the material I happened to have at hand, and it’s particularly on display in “Stonebrood,” which wouldn’t exist at all in its current form if certain pieces hadn’t fallen together in just the right way. As usual, I expect to discuss the story’s development in greater detail in the coming weeks, so I hope you’ll take a moment to check it out.

Written by nevalalee

August 11, 2015 at 9:42 am

Discovering the “Cryptids,” Part 3

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The May 2014 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact

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

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

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

Sinornithosaurus fossil

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

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

Written by nevalalee

March 26, 2014 at 9:44 am

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