Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Boneless One

The audio file

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When you spend most of your working life typing in silence, it can be disorienting to hear your own words spoken out loud. Writers are often advised to read their writing aloud to check the rhythm, but I’ve never gotten into the habit, and I tend to be more obsessed with how the result looks on the page. As a result, whenever I encounter an audio version of something I’ve written, it feels disorienting, like hearing my own voice on tape. I vividly remember listening to StarShipSofa’s version of “The Boneless One,” narrated by Josh Roseman, while holding my newborn daughter in the hospital, and if everything goes as planned, another publisher will release an audio anthology that includes my novella “The Proving Ground”—which was recently named a notable story in the upcoming edition of The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy—within the next couple of months. And the most memorable project of all was “Retention,” my episode of the science fiction audio series The Outer Reach, which was performed by Aparna Nancherla and Echo Kellum. I’ve never forgotten the result, but listening to it was such an emotionally charged experience that I’ve only managed to play it once. (Hearing the finished product was gratifying, but the process also cured me of any desire to write words for actors. It’s exciting when it happens, but also requires a degree of detachment that I don’t currently possess.)

I mention all this now because an excerpt of the audiobook version of Astounding has just been posted on SoundCloud. It’s about five minutes long, and it includes the opening section of the first chapter, which recounts a rather strange incident—involving drugs, mirrors, and hypnosis—from the partnership of John W. Campbell and L. Ron Hubbard in the early days of dianetics. The narrator is Sean Runnette, who certainly knows the territory, with previous credits that include Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast and the novel that was the basis for The Meg. He does a great job, and although I haven’t heard the rest, which comes to more than thirteen hours, I suspect that I’m going to end up playing all of it. One of the hardest parts of writing anything is putting enough distance between yourself and your work so that you can review it objectively. For a short story, I’ve found that a few weeks is long enough, but in the case of a novel, it can take months, or even longer. And I’m not remotely close to that point yet with this book. Listening to this audio sample, however, I finally felt as if it had been written by somebody else, as if the translation from one medium into another had yielded the same effect that I normally get from distance in time. (Which may be the real reason why reading your work out loud might be a good idea.) I’m glad that this audio version exists for a lot of reasons, but I’m especially grateful for the new perspective that it offers on this book, which I wrote largely because it was something that I wanted to read. And so far, I actually like it.

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.

Written by nevalalee

July 11, 2013 at 9:11 am

Cannibalistic octopuses and other joys of writing

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Octopus engraving

Note: To celebrate the premiere of the audio version of my novelette “The Boneless One,” which you can hear narrated by Josh Roseman this week on StarShipSofa, I’m reposting a pair of essays I wrote last year on the story’s origins. This post originally appeared on September 28, 2011.

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

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

Jacques Cousteau

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

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

If you’d like to read “The Boneless One,” you can find it in The Year’s Best Science Fiction, 29th Edition, edited by Gardner Dozois.

How an octopus saved my life

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A bioluminescent octopus

Note: To celebrate the premiere of the audio version of my novelette “The Boneless One,” which you can hear narrated by Josh Roseman this week on StarShipSofa, I’m reposting a pair of essays I wrote last year on the story’s origins. This post originally appeared on September 27, 2011.

My writing career has had its share of ups and downs, but one of its roughest moments came in the spring of 2008. At that point, I’d been out of a job for two years, working hard on my first, still unpublished novel, an epic adventure story set in India. A year before, I’d landed a very good agent in what struck me as record time, and we spent the next twelve months working on the book, paring it down from a quarter of a million words and transforming it from an adventure novel into more of a streamlined thriller. In the end, though, we couldn’t see eye to eye on what this novel was supposed to be, so we decided to part ways, leaving me with no agent and a novel I wasn’t sure I could sell. I was crushed, but ultimately, I did the only thing I could: I started looking for agents again. And in the meantime, I turned back to my first love, which was short science fiction.

Over the next six weeks, as I waited for responses—fruitlessly, as it turned out—from the next round of agents, I researched and wrote two novelettes. The second, “The Last Resort,” was picked up fairly quickly by Analog and published in their September 2009 issue. The first, “The Boneless One,” which was the first wholly original work of short fiction I’d written since college, wasn’t published until November 2011. And although it took a long time for this story to see print, I’m relieved it finally did, because it’s probably my favorite of my own novelettes—both because of its inherent virtues and because of the role it played in my life. When I began writing “The Boneless One,” I’d hit my first serious wall as a writer, and was filled with doubt as to whether I’d make it at all. And it wasn’t until I decided to write a story for my own pleasure that I remembered why I was doing this in the first place.

Van Houtte octopus engraving

As a result, the memory of working on “The Boneless One” is one of my happiest memories as a writer. I began, as usual, by leafing through magazines, looking for an idea or two that might result in the germ of a plot. In this case, a few years earlier, I’d bought a trove of back issues of Discover and Scientific American, and while browsing through my collection, I came across two promising articles: one about luminescent ocean creatures, another about a global research voyage designed to catalog the previously undocumented genetic diversity of microscopic life in the sea. I’ve always been fascinated by oceanography, and love The Life Aquatic so much that I almost called this novelette The Knife Aquatic. And almost immediately, I saw the outlines of a story, about a research yacht that drifts into a ghostly school of glowing octopuses, and what happens in the aftermath.

Tomorrow, I’ll be talking more about how I conceived the story itself, which turned, rather unexpectedly, into a fair play murder mystery of exceptional gruesomeness. But today, I just want to reflect on the writing process, which was close to my ideal of how a writer’s life should be. I was living in Brooklyn at the time, so one afternoon, I took the train down to the New York Aquarium one with hopes of checking out an octopus or two. I didn’t see one—I think the octopus was hiding that day—but I still remember taking in the exhibits and a sea lion show, listening on my headphones to Eternal Youth by Future Bible Heroes, and trying to figure out the plot of this rather dark story. For the first time in over a year, after a grueling rewrite process, I remembered how it really felt to be a writer—to invent stories and characters just because I could. And for that, I have an octopus to thank.

If you’d like to read “The Boneless One,” you can find it in The Year’s Best Science Fiction, 29th Edition, edited by Gardner Dozois.

You never know

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATED: The return of “The Boneless One”

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

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

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

Written by nevalalee

February 3, 2012 at 11:06 am

News from all over

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On Saturday, my wife and I finally returned home after two amazing weeks in Hong Kong and China. It was a fascinating trip that took me from the mountains of Guilin to the heart of Beijing, upending many of my own preconceptions in the process, and I hope to share more thoughts about it soon. (Among other things, it taught me that if you don’t speak Chinese, the best way to ingratiate yourself with a large group is to eat as much as possible, and hope to impress with your chopstick skills.) In the meantime, though, since it’s been a while since I had the chance to update this blog in a timely fashion, I’d like to share a few tidbits of news that came up while I was away.

First off, I’ve just received the final version of the cover for The Icon Thief, and it’s a beauty. Artwork and text remain essentially the same, with one big difference: the cover now includes excerpts from three incredibly generous blurbs from the suspense authors Jesse Kellerman, Paul Christopher, and James Becker, all of whom were nice enough to read advance copies of the novel and share a few kind words. (Typography aficionados, including my mom, will also be pleased to note that the kerning between the “v” and “a” in my last name has been fixed. If you’re curious, you can compare the revised version against the original one here.)

Even more excitingly, my novelette “The Boneless One,” which came out in Analog earlier this year, has been selected by editor Gardner Dozois for inclusion in The Year’s Best Science Fiction, 29th Edition, or simply Best SF 29. Science fiction fans need no introduction to Dozois, but for the uninitiated, he’s a real legend in the field—he edited Asimov’s for many years and is arguably the most respected anthologist in science fiction today. Best SF is published in hardcover every year by St. Martin’s Griffin, usually in the summer, so you can look forward to seeing it in six months or so. I’ll post further updates as I receive them.

Obviously, given the number of science fiction stories published each year, ending up in an anthology like this is as much a matter of luck as anything else. (To give you a sense of the odds involved, out of the thirty-five stories chosen for this year’s anthology, “The Boneless One” is the sole story from Analog to make the cut.) Luck or otherwise, it still feels good, especially for a story that had a rocky road to publication, and which remains my personal favorite of my own short fiction. And I can only feel flattered, and humbled, to be included in such illustrious company, a fully annotated list of which can be found here. In all honesty, my own work aside, I just can’t wait to read these stories.

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