Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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The Making of “Stonebrood,” Part 2

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The author's notes for "Stonebrood"

Note: This is the second of three posts in which I discuss how I conceived and wrote my novelette “Stonebrood,” the lead story in the October issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. A long excerpt can be found here, and the whole thing is available both on newsstands and for purchase online. Be warned that a few spoilers follow.

In his chatty, engaging autobiography, the legendary author Harry Harrison makes a useful point about the way plot influences character in science fiction, rather than the other way around:

One thing that detective stories share with science fiction is that you have to know the ending before you can write the book. In a detective novel you start at the end and work backward. In science fiction you do the same thing at different points in the story—you do it more often. So in West of Eden I needed the hero to speak the Yilane language, so I had to work backward from there and plot how this came about. Mainstream fiction is oriented around the character—the story comes out of the characters. Science fiction is plot oriented: you get a plot and then you create a character to fit the plot. In science fiction the plot is based on an idea, it is about a novelty and an exploration of that novelty. Someone once said that science fiction was the only form of fiction where the plot was the hero.

At its worst, this approach can lead to the kind of flimsy characterizations that you still sometimes see in Analog, in which a character exists solely to talk about or embody a particular technical concept. But if the underlying premise is twisty or challenging enough, it can also result in characters you might never have imagined if you’d followed a more conventional path.

Marius, the lead character in “Stonebrood,” has a fairly involved backstory. He’s the grandchild of Lithuanian immigrants who settled in New Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; he was estranged from his abusive father and close to his grandmother, who kept bees, and his uncle, who was killed by a neighborhood gangster; he grew up to run a numbers racket and was arrested for it; he went to prison, joined a convict crew to fight wildfires, and embarked upon a career in fire prevention after his release; and this doesn’t even get at some of the secret aspects of his past that are revealed as the story progresses. It’s a quirky assemblage of attributes, but they’re internally consistent and, it’s safe to say, not much like the backgrounds of most heroes of science fiction. Yet every single one of these character traits emerges from a plot point that had to pay off later on. In a number of cases, the connections are obvious: if I wanted to write a story about a convict crew fighting a coal seam fire, it made sense for the protagonist to fit a certain profile. This also had implications for his criminal history, which, by the law of conservation of detail, would most likely end up playing a role in the plot itself. (As Brad Bird likes to say: “We use every part of the buffalo.”) But the most interesting character material of all tends to emerge less from specific story beats than from the thematic associations that the narrative evokes.

The author's notes for "Stonebrood"

Take, for example, his Lithuanian heritage, which was the product of an exceptionally convoluted chain of reasoning. As I brooded over the premise of a firefighting crew using tiny drones to map a coal seam fire, it occurred to me that a plot might emerge from the discovery of microorganisms that could survive in those inhospitable conditions. A bit of digging led me to the idea of thermophilic amoebas, of the sort that thrive in the thermal discharges from electrical plants. It also occurred to me that I could justify a series of inexplicable events if members of the firefighting crew turned out to be suffering from amoebic meningitis, which can cause disorientation and hallucinations. This disease, I thought, could be spread by contact with drones or “hives”—the inductive charging stations that powered the robotic bees—that had been contaminated. This was a bit of a leap, but I figured I could make it work by drawing an analogy to beekeeping, and particularly to the possibility that a beekeeper could catch a disease from his own bees. As it happens, there’s one disease that fits the bill, and it’s called stonebrood. So not only did I have a useful analogy for what was taking place within the story, I also had a title. (I decided to call it “Stonebrood” both because it sounds evocative and because by putting a clue to the mystery in the title itself, I could make the solution seem as if it had been in front of the reader’s eyes all along. It’s a cheap trick, but it works.)

So what does this have to do with Lithuanians? Once I knew that beekeeping would play an allegorical role in the story, I began to look into beekeeping itself and into the lore of bees in general. As I soon learned, the symbolic history of bees in Lithuania is particularly rich. A dead bee is described using the same word that would be used for a dead man, and it would be buried in a similar fashion; if you kept bees, you could tell them all your family’s secrets; and two families could be joined by a special kinship, called biciulyste, if the bees from one hive settled onto someone else’s land. That’s a rich vein of images and concepts, and I gave Marius a Lithuanian background mostly so I had the option of drawing upon it. (The fact that the largest Lithuanian community in the United States happens to be in Pennsylvania, not far from the mining country where I’d already decided that the bulk of the action would take place, was just one of those coincidences by which the universe tells you that you’re on the right track.) The Lithuanian material isn’t derived axiomatically from the demands of the plot; instead, it was an intuitive guess at what set of details might lead most naturally to others. And from that decision, at long last, arose the plot itself, which turned out to have surprising affinities with some of my own suspense novels. Tomorrow, I’ll close my discussion of this story with more detail on how the plot—which includes a grisly murder or two—fell into place, and end with my thoughts on how it all turned out.

Written by nevalalee

August 25, 2015 at 9:25 am

The Making of “Stonebrood,” Part 1

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A RoboBee

Note: For the next three days, I’ll discussing how I conceived and wrote my novelette “Stonebrood,” the lead story in the October issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. A long excerpt can be found here, and the whole thing is available both on newsstands and for purchase online.

At this point in my life, I’ve written a bunch of short stories, and you’d think that the process would have gotten a little easier by now. Invariably, though, whenever I sit down to write something from scratch, I’m paralyzed by the fear that I won’t be able to do it again, and I can barely remember—despite the detailed notes that I keep about my process—how I’ve done it before. And this insecurity isn’t entirely unfounded. When you’re a reasonably prolific writer, you end up caught in an arm’s race between two competing trends. On the one hand, you’re a stronger, more efficient craftsman than you were when you first started, and you’ve learned a few tricks along the way about plot and character, even if, as Jack Woodford notes, you can’t always articulate what it is that you’re doing. On the other hand, once you’ve written half a dozen stories for public consumption, you find yourself boxed in, not just by the possibilities of any one idea, but by all the other ideas that you’ve already used. If you don’t want to repeat yourself, you soon realize that each story you write closes off certain avenues for future exploration. As David Brin once wrote: “If you think that the territory of notions is limited, then the hard [science fiction] writer is like a wildcat miner drilling out resources that are shrinking.” And while that’s true of the field as a whole, it’s also true of any one writer and his or her own backlog of ideas.

In my case, I’ve found that I tend to fall back repeatedly on a couple of stock formulas, notably the story in which what looks like a paranormal phenomenon turns out to have a valid, if highly unlikely, scientific explanation. (In a way, it follows the basic form of an episode of The X-Files while inverting its logic: my stories take place in an equally weird universe in which Dana Scully is always right.) In practice, this kind of story has a way of relying on the same handful of monkey tricks, in which, for instance, the events hinge on some obscure medical condition, the symptoms of which are misinterpreted until the end as something else. When the stories are read individually, there’s no reason why I can’t resort to that gimmick as often as it works, as long as the plot and setting are distinctive enough to make their similarities less obvious: these stories appear few and far between, and I don’t know how many readers remember them well enough to see a pattern there. But I’m also writing with one eye to that hypothetical day when all of these stories will be collected within book covers—if not by a conventional publisher, then at least in an electronic edition that I assemble myself for my own satisfaction. And when you read a string of such stories back to back, it soon becomes clear if a writer relies too often on the same kind of twist. Whether or not this is a valid concern is beside the point: if it motivates me to strike out in new directions, it’s probably a good thing.

Centralia, Pennsylvania

And if you’re really worried about writing the same kind of story too often, there are basically two things you can do. The first approach tackles the problem from the top down: you can pick a notably different story type or subcategory and see what happens when you try to work within those conventions. This was the tack that I followed with “Cryptids,” which was basically a straight monster story, and although the success of the outcome is debatable—many readers seem to have liked the result better than I did—you can’t say that it reads like the other stories I’ve written. The second approach, which is more interesting, is to start from the bottom up: you seek out raw material from a different source than the ones that have provided you with ideas in the past. Many of my premises have emerged from science journals or magazines, which lends itself to a particular kind of plot: the twist, when it comes, is surprising to the extent that it turns on a quirky fact that most readers wouldn’t be expected to know off the tops of their heads. When I decided, about a year ago, to write something new, I figured I’d start somewhere else. In this case, I picked up a stack of back issues of The Atlantic, which is hardly known for its science coverage, and browsed in it until something caught my eye. I was looking for articles that suggested a setting or general plot structure, preferably with a lot of background material that I could use, and I finally found it in the form of a long article by Brian Mockenhaupt on the tragic case of nineteen firefighters who died in a wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona.

It’s a compelling, beautifully researched piece, and I could tell at a glance that could form the basis of a good story. Even better, it reminded me of an article that I’d read and filed away a few months earlier with an eye to developing it later: a New York Times piece by Fernanda Santos about the convict crews that are increasingly being put to work fighting forest fires in places like Yarnell. At the time, I had the vague notion of writing up something like Con Air meets Backdraft, which is an idea I’m happy to pass to any aspiring screenwriters who might be reading. Since this was going to be a story for Analog, though, I started to look for a scientific angle using the dumbest method imaginable—I did a few searches in the archives of my favorite science magazines to see if I could find anything interesting about firefighting. As luck would have it, I found two articles right away in Discover that sparked a chain of ideas of their own. The first was about coal seam fires, the invisible infernos that can rage underground for decades, most famously in the ghost town of Centralia, Pennsylvania; the other was about the use of tiny drones, resembling bees, that might be used by firefighters to send back information about the inside of a burning building. Within seconds, I saw the outline of a story about a convict crew fighting a coal seam fire and using drones to map it. It was a nifty image, but it lacked characters or a plot. Tomorrow, I’ll talk a little more about how a narrative began to suggest itself, and why I named the story after a disease that can be caught by beekeepers.

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

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

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