Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Voices

Listening to “The Voices,” part 3

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One of my favorite quotations about creativity of any kind comes from the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, as quoted in the wonderful book Which Lie Did I Tell? by the screenwriter William Goldman:

I cannot write a bad song. You begin it here, build, end there. The words will lay properly on the music so they can be sung, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper song.

At the risk of sounding presumptuous, and with no thought of comparing myself to either Sondheim or Goldman, I sometimes like to think that the same point applies, at least to some extent, to my own short fiction. I’ve worked hard at developing my writing skills, and I know a lot of useful tricks—laying in the narrative hook, starting the story as late as possible, structuring each beat around a clear objective—within a specific tonal range. Give me two weeks, and I can start from nothing and end up with a technically sound short story or novelette. It won’t stray too far from my comfort zone, and whether or not anyone else will want to read it, much less pay money for it, is another question entirely. But it will be a proper story.

Of course, some stories are more proper than others. (As Goldman says of his screenplay for Absolute Power: “The first draft was proper as hell—you just didn’t give a shit.”) And when I look back at my novelette “The Voices,” my first thought is that I wish I’d done a better job. It isn’t a bad story by any means: if nothing else, it got published, which is more than I can say for a lot of other things I’ve written. I wouldn’t change much, if anything, in the first half, which I think is pretty strong. But as I noted yesterday, the ending left many readers confused, and when I read over the last few pages now, I see a lot of things I’d like to fix, especially in Dr. Iyer’s final speech, in which I alternate between spelling things out too clearly and not clearly enough. Like much of my work, “The Voices” also suffers from having too many ideas: I don’t think we necessarily need the discussion of how people born in winter months are more likely to suffer from schizophrenia—hence January’s name—or the point that some of the symptoms of schizophrenia can be alleviated by smoking. These are nice ideas, but they distract from the main line of the story, and I have a hunch that I’d cut them now if I had the chance.

All of this is highly subjective, and if you asked some of my more critical readers what they disliked about this story, they’d probably come up with an entirely different list. Still, my own tastes are the ones I trust the most, and to my eyes, of all the stories I’ve published in Analog, “The Voices” is the only one I think would benefit substantially from another draft. The funny thing, of course, is that I’ve had plenty of time to repent at leisure: I wrote the initial version in about two weeks, and it was accepted soon thereafter, but as usual, the wheels of Analog turn slowly, and the story appeared close to a year later. (Authors are also actively discouraged from making any changes, no matter how minor, in the interval between acceptance and publication.) If I ever see it printed again in another form—like the anthology that I’d love to put together once I have enough published stories, which at my current rate will occur sometime within the next forty years—it’s likely that I’ll tweak it a bit more to my own satisfaction.

In the meantime, I’ve learned an important lesson, which is that I should hold off on submitting stories like this until I’ve had time to appraise them with a cooler eye. Most of the problems with “The Voices,” real or imaginary, would have been avoided if I’d set it aside for a week after completion, turning back to other projects in the meantime, and taken one day at the end for a final reading and polish—which is exactly what I intend to do when I write my next story, which will hopefully happen sometime in September. When it comes to writing this kind of fiction, speed is a virtue—as I’ve said before, given my current schedule, I can’t really justify taking more than two weeks to write a story like this—but when the publication cycle can run close to a year, there’s no harm in waiting a few extra days to make sure the draft is as strong as it can be. I still like “The Voices.” It’s a proper story. But when I look at the version before me, I can’t help but wonder, if I’d been just a little more careful, if it could have turned into something more.

Note: Today at 4:30 pm, I’ll be appearing on my first panel at the World Science Fiction Convention here in Chicago, a session for new writers also featuring S.J. Chambers, Emma Newman, Hanna Martine, and Thomas Olde Heuvelt. Hope to see some of you there!

Written by nevalalee

August 30, 2012 at 9:37 am

Listening to “The Voices,” part 2

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(Note: The following post contains massive spoilers for my novelette “The Voices.”)

Ambiguity can be a dangerous thing. Nearly every writer has been tempted to write a story that can be read in two different ways, or to mislead readers with unreliable narrators or the withholding of crucial information. When it’s done right, as in The Sixth Sense, the effect can be overwhelming, as the conclusion forces you to rethink everything you’ve seen before. The trouble is that if you’ve done your job poorly, or too well, readers may end up with a radically different impression from the one you intended, even if you’ve done your best to steer them in another direction. After Inception first came out, legions of viewers insisted that they saw the top fall in the final shot, even though it clearly does no such thing. When you’re deliberately trying to generate confusion, as in a movie like Certified Copy, it can be a lot of fun. But when you’ve written a story that hinges on a particular twist, only to have readers draw altogether different conclusions, the result can be frustrating for everyone concerned.

In the case of my story “The Voices”—and big spoilers follow—the ending reveals that January, the main character, is exactly what she seemed to be at the beginning: a woman with severe schizophrenia. The treatment she undergoes causes the voices in her head to fall silent, but replaces them with a more insidious hallucination: at the end of the story, she discovers that the young scientist with whom she has earnestly discussed the implications of her case is just a figment of her imagination, and that her delusions, thwarted along one parameter, had simply found another way to break out. When I first wrote the story, I tried to make this as clear as I could, including a long explanation in dialogue and a series of flashbacks, a la Fight Club, that encouraged the reader to reinterpret previous moments in a different light. And when my wife—always my first and best reader—told me that the ending was still a little unclear, I did my best to underline these points even further.

In the end, though, my wife’s initial reaction was probably a warning sign.  When the story was published in Analog, I noticed a curious thing: a lot of readers, including at least one professional critic, were left with the impression that the voices were, in fact, real, and that I was writing a thinly disguised fantasy. The difficulty, I think, is that for most of the story’s length, the voices are presented at face value, as equal participants in the narrative, a tactic that seems to have convinced many readers that they were supposed to be objectively real. As one critic writes:

The problem here is with January’s denial, when she engages in lengthy conversations with the unseen presence, takes their detailed advice, and even calls one of them by name. If she has a delusion, it’s the unfounded notion that she’s delusional. The reader knows better and will have a hard time crediting this character.

Needless to say, this wasn’t what I intended: I wanted it to be clear, at least in retrospect, that every scene was written from January’s point of view, and that the fact that she could engage in extended conversations with the voices—which happens in cases of severe schizophrenia—is no evidence at all that they’re real. In the end, though, it seems that this narrative device was a little too convincing, and left many readers with the opposite impression even after I did my best to demolish it in the story’s final pages.

So what’s the lesson here? If readers ended up being confused in ways that I didn’t intend, it’s my fault, and I ultimately feel that the ambiguity hurts the story. (It’s no accident that “The Voices” has received something of a mixed reception from readers, with some highly positive reviews and others calling it their least favorite story in the issue—and while I don’t have any hard evidence for this, I suspect that those who concluded that the voices were real tended to like the story less, if only because it seemed more like fantasy than science fiction.) Looking back, part of me wonders if I could have made the ending more clear, although I also think that the only real solution would have been to recast the entire story in the first person, which would have emphasized the unreliable nature of the main character’s perceptions. Still, if nothing else, the experience taught me a valuable lesson: if you’re going to be ambiguous, you’d better be clear about it.

Written by nevalalee

August 29, 2012 at 10:12 am

Listening to “The Voices,” part 1

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Writers love to talk about how certain ideas seize their attention and won’t let go, but in my case, almost invariably, the desire to write a story comes long before the initial idea, not the other way around. In other words, I start by deciding to write something, then look for something to write about. This peculiar urge, which seems to exist independently of any particular subject, can arise when I happen to have a few weeks free to work on a writing project; when I have the itch to see something of mine in print, and hopefully to get paid for it; or, most of all, when I miss the experience of starting with a blank page and empty mind and turning it into something with suspense, structure, and emotion. In particular, in July of last year, I found myself motivated by a number of such factors. I’d just finished the first draft of the novel that would eventually become City of Exiles, an exhausting experience that had left me feeling a little burnt out and anxious to try something fun. I wanted to take two weeks off before plunging into the rewrite. And I hadn’t written any short fiction in a long time.

With this in mind, I began looking around for an appropriate subject for a short story, which would eventually become my novelette “The Voices,” which finally appeared last month in the September issue of Analog. As I’ve said before, whenever I find myself stuck for ideas, I go to the library and start browsing, usually among the science magazines. I’m not looking for anything in particular, just something that will start a chain of associations or trigger the jolt of curiosity that I’ve long since come to associate with a promising project. More specifically, I’m looking for two or more articles that collide in interesting ways, since I’ve found that much of what we call creativity arises from unexpected combinations. I’ve explained in earlier posts how a similar process led to my stories “Kawataro,” “The Boneless One,” and “Ernesto,” and in this case, after a few hours of browsing at the Sulzer Regional branch of the Chicago Public Library, I found a couple of articles in back issues of Discover that seemed very promising: one by Adam Piore about the attempt to create a kind of synthetic telepathy that could read soldiers’ thoughts, and one by Karen Wright about the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation to treat symptoms of schizophrenia, including auditory hallucinations.

These two articles fell together very neatly, and almost at once, I began to envision a character who suffered from auditory hallucinations, like disembodied voices, and sought treatment from a therapy that could “read” the voices in her head. It was a good beginning, but like all stories, it needed something more, which in this case came from an unexpected source. At the time, I was reading the sprawling fantasy novel Little, Big by John Crowley, and although I had some reservations about its structure and pacing, I was, and remain, haunted by its atmosphere, which creates a genuine air of mystery and romance around a big rambling house in New England and the spirits of nature nearby. On a more sinister note, this is also Lovecraft country, a place where the woods have many secrets, which made it the perfect location for the story I had in mind. When we’re presented with a woman who hears voices, we might reasonably conclude that she’s suffering from schizophrenia, but if she’s from a certain part of the New England countryside, with its rumors of elves and fairies—well, we might slowly start to wonder, if we aren’t sure what kind of story we’re reading, whether the voices might in fact be real.

What that, I had my story. If Joan of Arc were alive today, I reasoned, she might well end up in psychiatric treatment, even as she continued to wonder if the messages she was receiving were coming from somewhere outside her own mind. My main character would be a sort of Joan figure—I ended up calling her January, for reasons I’ll explain later—who was smart, skeptical of the voices she was hearing in the woods, and willing to do whatever it took to discover if they were real or not. I’d stay in her head for the entire story, presenting everything from her point of view, including the voices, which would speak to her as reasonably as any other character, with no sense that they might be imaginary. The resulting story would skirt the edges of fantasy, while remaining firmly grounded in science fiction, although the reader wouldn’t necessarily know this. Indeed, if I did my job correctly, I could keep readers in a state of suspense over how much of the narrative to believe, to the point where they might even forget that the main character, by definition, was far from a reliable narrator. And as I’ll explain tomorrow, in the finished story, it may have worked a little too well.

Written by nevalalee

August 28, 2012 at 10:03 am

A balanced writing diet

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Later this week, if all goes well, I’ll finish the rough draft of my third novel. The last two books in this series have been written under a fair amount of time pressure, with nine to ten months devoted in each case to assembling a big, complex story that ideally would take a couple of years or more. All the same, I’m very happy with how City of Exiles turned out, and I’m hopeful that the same will be true of the novel I’m writing now, even if the current draft looks more like a loose, baggy monster. Still, at my lowest moments, there are times when I consider the work I’ve done this year and the work that is still to come and think that I never want to write another novel again. It’s an exhausting process, extended over the course of many months with no end in sight, and I sometimes feel like I’ve been writing this novel forever—which may be one reason why I’ve just changed its title from The Scythian to Eternal Empire.

Once I finish this draft, my plan is to spend another week polishing it, as well as fixing its many internal consistencies, and then send it to my agent and a few other readers for their thoughts. After that, I’ll take a short break. In an ideal world, I’d put the novel in a drawer for a month or more—Stephen King recommends staying away from it for at least six weeks—but my compressed schedule means that this will have to be a rather short vacation of two weeks or so. In theory, I could spend that time doing anything I want, and part of me would be happy to curl up in the corner with a big pile of John D. MacDonald novels. But what I’m probably going to do is write a short story, hopefully a novelette, for submission to Analog or elsewhere. It may seem strange to take a break from an intense, time-sensitive writing project with more of the same, but I’m really looking forward to it. Among other things, I’ve found that the only way to return to a writing project with fresh eyes is to write something else in the meantime.

Perhaps more importantly, a short writing project provides, in miniature form, many of the pleasures I’ve missed as a novelist over the last couple of years. The most exciting time in any writer’s life is the very beginning of a project, when you’ve hit on a good idea that could go in any number of directions. You know there’s a story here, but you’re not quite sure what it is, and you can still look forward to the absorbing work of creating characters, doing background research, and sketching out the bones of a plot. It’s the greatest game in the world, and the reason I became a writer in the first place. With a novel, however, that part of the process tends to occupy only a fraction of the actual time spent writing, with most of your working hours devoted to the often tedious task of realizing an inspiration from months or years before. That’s especially true of series fiction, with the constraints it imposes of characters and tone, and although it can be rewarding in other ways, that initial sense of discovery is harder to maintain.

That’s why I’m convinced it’s so important for a writer to maintain a balanced diet of writing projects: novels, short fiction, maybe even essays or poetry. Each form provides challenges and pleasures of its own, and focusing on one to the exclusion of others neglects important parts of one’s writing mind. If I did nothing but write novels, I’d spend years between those moments of fundamental inspiration that make the rest of the process worthwhile; but if I did nothing but write short stories, I’d find my imagination sparked by something new on a regular basis, but miss out on the satisfaction of working through all of a story’s implications. The only solution is to make time for stories along the entire spectrum of length and complexity. As I’ve noted before, the financial return on writing short fiction is as close to zero as it can possibly be without actually becoming negative, but its spiritual rewards are far greater. Without this kind of balanced diet, I couldn’t stay healthy as a writer. And I’m looking forward to the next course.

(Note: Over the next few days, I’ll be discussing the origins and development of my novelette “The Voices,” which appeared in the September 2012 issue of Analog. If you’re interested in following along, you can buy and read the issue online.)

Written by nevalalee

August 27, 2012 at 9:52 am

Listening to “The Voices”

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The September 2012 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact is on newsstands now, featuring my novelette “The Voices,” which is sort of an homage to Little, Big by way of H.P. Lovecraft. Analog calls it “psychological fiction in the most literal, yet engaging, sense,” and since it may be my last story there for a while—I sadly haven’t had time to write anything new this year—I’m very glad to see it in print. As usual, I’ll be talking about the story’s origins in some detail later this month, so if you have a chance, please pick up a copy, which you can buy at Barnes & Noble or online here.

Written by nevalalee

June 27, 2012 at 6:20 pm

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