Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Trevor Quachri

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

Inventing “The Whale God,” Part 3

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The September 2013 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact

Note: This is part three of a three-part post. For the previous two installments, please see here and here.

Writers fall into formulas for a number of reasons. The obvious motivation is a commercial one: if an editor consistently buys stories that fall into a particular category while remaining indifferent to others, it’s tempting to stick with what worked in the past. Formulas can also arise from a sense of one’s own strengths and limitations. Any story represents a significant investment of time, thought, and energy, and it’s easier to justify the expense—at least in the short term—if it’s directed into a shape that seems likely to generate a pleasing result. In my own work, I’ve been influenced by both factors to various extents. All the stories I’ve sold, either novels or short fiction, were works that I knew were comfortably within my abilities at the time; I’ve rarely tried to write over my own head. And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t take into account what I knew about the preferences of my editors, even though I’ve never written anything other than something I’d like to read myself.

The trouble, of course, is that a formula repeated for too long starts to grow stale, both for the writer and his readers. One of the challenges I’ve faced in my short fiction is figuring out a way to continue operating in the mode I like—which I enjoy one hell of a lot—while pushing it into new directions at the same time. It’s hard for an author to change his style overnight; instead, you’re more likely to see subtle variations and departures that occur within the realm of the familiar. With “The Whale God,” I was aiming to write a story that worked as the kind of contemporary scientific mystery that I’ve written in the past, while also modulating the action so that it focused more on the protagonist’s internal struggle as he confronts a situation that may be out of his control. I’ve established to my own satisfaction that I know how to write action and violence; I was more curious about whether I could write a war story in which no shots are fired. And the real question was whether the underlying premise was strong enough to sustain the reader’s interest.

Notebook page for "The Whale God"

That’s the nice thing about executing such variations within a structure I know well: once I have an appealing idea that seems reasonably within my wheelhouse, I’m fairly confident in my ability to follow through. You can see this progression clearly in my notes for “The Whale God,” which go from random brainstorming on the first page, much of which was later discarded, to a more systematic list of facts, story beats, and ideas, nearly all of which made it to the final story. On the third page of my notes, there’s an outline of all three acts, and it tracks the finished version remarkably well. I made small adjustments in the detailed outline and rough draft—I moved one ghost sighting from the whale temple to the beach, for instance—but the act breaks and major turning points survived pretty much intact. I like to think I’ve reached a point where any story I write will at least be “a proper song,” to use Stephen Sondheim’s words: it will begin and end in the right place, build properly, and have a few exciting moments. But it’s that initial premise on which it will rise and fall.

Which is why writing a story always remains a bit of a gamble, even once you’ve started to figure out the process. (I’m often reminded of William Goldman’s take on one of his own scripts: “The first draft was proper as hell—you just didn’t give a shit.”) In the case of “The Whale God,” fortunately, the premise was solid enough that Trevor Quachri at Analog liked it just fine. I sent it out at the end of September, and after a slightly longer wait than usual, possibly due to the recent editorial changeover, it was accepted after four months with no changes. Less than five months later, it was on newsstands, with a gorgeous illustration by Vincent DiFate. And I’m very happy with it. Reading it over again, I think it succeeds in drawing the reader along solely through atmosphere, character, and an interesting problem, and although there’s no conventional action or violence, it’s still a solid, shrewdly constructed story. And without my confidence in the rules I’ve established, I’m not sure I would have taken that risk.

Written by nevalalee

July 3, 2013 at 9:06 am

Goodbye, Worldcon; Goodbye, Stanley

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What can you say about something like Worldcon? It’s only been over for a day or two, and I already miss it. For much of the past weekend, I’ve felt like I was practically living at the Hyatt Regency, even though I still went back home to Oak Park every night—which makes me feel as though I only got half the experience, since so much of the life of the convention clearly takes place sometime between midnight and four in the morning. And after telling myself that this was likely to be my first and last convention, I’m already starting to wonder when I can come back. (San Antonio next year probably isn’t in the cards, but London in 2014 is awfully tempting.) I went in looking forward mostly to my own panels, but emerged having learned a great deal more than I managed to convey to anyone else, not just about writing, but about speculative fiction, fandom, and the ties that bind them together.

I’ll have a chance to talk more about my panels on this blog in the future, and it was a real pleasure to meet writers like Jay Lake, Stephen Leigh, Vylar Kaftan, Russell Davis, and so many others. The real fun, however, came in attending other events, sometimes almost by accident. My favorite was the panel “Media Tie-In Novels: Art or Commerce,” in which such authors as David Gerrold and Peter David traded war stories, both good and bad, about the curious and often undervalued work of writing movie, television, and gaming tie-ins. (Game designer Tom Dowd had kind words for Vonda N. McIntyre’s novelization of Wrath of Khan, which I picked up later that day in the Dealers Room.) And of course the Hugo Awards were great fun: I got to chat with Locus reviewer Rich Horton and root for my favorite nominees, and while Community didn’t win, I was especially glad to see Kij Johnson win Best Novella for her wonderful “The Man Who Bridged the Mist.”

Yet the most significant moment of this year’s Worldcon was highly personal. Much earlier, I’d received an invitation for a special event sponsored by Analog, which I wanted to attend in any case, but it wasn’t until Friday that I learned the real reason behind it: the retirement, after thirty-four years, of editor Stanley Schmidt, with the highly capable managing editor Trevor Quachri taking the helm of the most legendary magazine in science fiction. At the event, Stan received heartfelt tributes from Sheila Williams, editor of Asimov’s, and writers whose names I’ve seen in print countless times, all gathered in the same crowded room. I hadn’t seen Stan in person in almost four years—we had lunch, oddly enough, on the day of Obama’s inauguration—and I’m grateful I had the chance to thank him myself and meet his charming wife Joyce. I had to run home soon thereafter, but I heard that the party ran past two in the morning.

And it isn’t surprising: we all owe Stan a lot. He was the first editor to ever buy a story I’d written—my novelette “Inversus,” which appeared in the January/February 2004 issue of Analog—and that first sale, which came out of the blue, was one of the great turning points of my life: it was my first concrete evidence that I might actually become a professional writer one day, and I’m sure there were many other authors there that night who could say the same thing. Since then, I’ve sold Stan a number of other stories, not all of which he accepted the first time around, and it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be at Worldcon at all if he hadn’t picked up “The Boneless One.” His support has been important to me in ways I can’t even begin to express, which is why I was so glad to see him get a standing ovation at the Hugos on Sunday—the biggest reception of the night. He deserves it.

Written by nevalalee

September 4, 2012 at 9:49 am

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.

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