Thursday, March 29, 2007

In The Land of White Death

I've always had a passing interest in literature about polar exploration, but when I had an idea for a novel set at the North Pole I started reading everything I could get my hands on regarding both Poles. A few have been mildly disappointing, but for the most part I have to say I am enjoying these books tremendously. Some of the best I've read so far are Ice Master, The Doomed 1913 Voyage of The Karluk by Jennifer Niven and In The Land of White Death by Valerian Albanov.

The latter I just finished today and it proved to be a most compelling story. Originally published in Russia in 1917 (Albanov was Russian), it is the firsthand account of Albanov's abandoment of the ship, Saint Anna, in 1914 along with 12 other crewman . The Saint Anna had been frozen in the Arctic almost due north of the Franz Josef archipelago for more than a year and a half, and Albanov and aproximately half the ship's crew decided they would rather take their chances on foot than waste another year hoping the shifting ice would spit the ship into open ocean before it crushed it (as happened so often to ships frozen in the ice - most famously with Shackleton's ship, Endurance, as well as the Karluk in the aforementioned book by by Niven)).

The main differences between Albanov's story and the others is that Shackleton eventually got all his men home alive, and the Karluk's captain, Robert Bartlett, got over half his men home alive, while Valerian Albanov, the navigator on the Saint Anna, was one of only two survivors of his expedition. Also, his book is told entirely in his words, as opposed to most other books of this kind which are told by historians after the fact. It does start out a little slowly, but by time I got to the end I found myself wishing someone would hurry up and a make a movie based on this book. It was an amazing tale, amazingly well told (especially when you consider who it was written by and under what circumstances). Albanov's descriptions are conscise and precise and created such a vivid picture of the scenery and events that I can still see it in my mind.

And the story behind the story (you know how I love those) is interesting too. The book was originally published in 1917, then translated into French in 1928. But that was as far as it ever went. It was overlooked, lost, forgotten. But in 1998 it was rediscovered and eventually published in English for the first (in 2000). So as familiar as some stories of polar exploration are, here is an amazing one that has been lost until just recently, and I would highly recommend it to any one.

In The Land of White Death by Valerian Albanov. Go read it. Now.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

"Approaching Zero" - by Kelly Parks

I love Alternate History stories but it started bothering me the way they all focused on alternate outcomes for recent human history. All of human existence on Earth is a brief instant compared to the age of Earth itself. What about some alternate outcomes in the deep past? Wouldn’t the multiverse of all alternate histories consist mostly of those alternatives? Places where the Snowball Earth era never ended or where the collision with a Mars sized body (that created the moon and stripped the early Earth of most of its volatiles) never happened.

That line of thought lead me to the conclusion that alternate histories where the south won the civil war or Rome never fell might be very hard to find among the many alternate universes where humanity never evolved at all.

Kelly Parks

Thursday, March 22, 2007

"Call Me Mr. Positive" - by Tom Barlow

Oops, missed one. (Sorry, Tom. Blame it on the jetlag...)

The title started as a bit of irony, since I'm definitely a half-empty-glass type of person, a half-empty glass that I suspect one of my cats has been repeatedly dunking her paw into when I wasn't paying attention.

The story itself probably harkens back to my first viewing of "2001: A Space Odyssey." I was struck, in the first scene where one of the astronauts is running laps around the outside wall of the space ship, by the loneliness of their situation. Death is always nearby in space travel (except perhaps for Keir Dullea), but death is a short-lived inconvenience. Loneliness is an every-day, every-moment pain.

Humans are pack animals, after all, and when we lose our pack we lose the context in which we are defined. In addition, with FTL travel, relativity takes away from the travelers the loved ones they leave behind on Earth. Therefore, the traveler's adopted pack shrinks to those with whom he explores.

Take even that away, and he is left with only himself as company. For some of us, especially we half-glassers, that prospect is more terrifying that any mere vacuum.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Rewrite Requests

I got the following question in my e-mail a little while back and thought it and the subsequent answer might be of interest:

Q: "I was curious about something...when you look at response times on various sites (such as Duotrope), one of the potential responses is "Rewrite request." I've never gotten one of those, even when the rejection included "We liked this, but..." and followed with a thing or two that would be relatively simple to fix. I'm not saying that I should have gotten such a request. There may have been more wrong with the story than I thought or they said. But I am curious -- what makes a story worth asking for changes in vs. just letting it go? How do you (as a writer) know if it's really a simple fix or the story has fatal flaws?"

My answer (now slightly edited and expanded) was:

There are two kinds of rewrites I deal with, one more serious than the other. The more serious of the two amounts to - Hey, I like this story, and if you will fix A, B and C to these specifications, then I'll buy the story. The other kind of rewrite request is more along the lines of - Hey, this has potential, and if you'd consider reworking these areas or developing this, that, or the other a bit more, I'd be willing to look at it again.

I try to make a point, also, of telling authors that any decision to rewrite is ultimately in their hands, and if they disagree with what I'm suggesting they should feel free to say "No thanks, I like my story the way it is." And there have been one or two stories that I probably would have bought anyway. In fact, I can think of one story where the author said "No thanks" and I did buy it anyway.

On the other hand, I can also think of one particular writer who kicked and screamed through the whole revision process, but he did it anyway. And when all was said and done he publicly acknowledged that the story was better for the work we did on it. My job is a delicate balancing act of trying to make every story I publish be the best that it can be, yet to do so without taking over or being heavy-handed about it. These aren't my stories; they belong to the people who created them.

Of course, I just realized that I haven't answered your original question about what makes a story worth asking for changes vs. just letting it go. And to be blunt, the answer probably isn't any more complicated than this (usually): the closer a story is to being publishable, the more likely I am to ask for a rewrite.

There are, of course, always exceptions. Every once and a while I'll see a story and happen to particularly like the voice that author has captured (which is one of the harder things to do well), and I'll work through several rounds of revision with them to bring the story up to par. That's a LOT of work though, so I'm pretty selective about when I do that.

On the other hand, there are some authors I have enough experience with that I know what they are capable of and trust them to do a good job. Eric James Stone and Brad Beaulieu are two who come to mind. I don't have to say more than: Can you give me a little bit more of X, or; Please refine Y a bit, and they've come back to me with levels of work far beyond what I thought I was asking for, so that makes it a lot easier for me to ask for revisions again in the future.

The bottom line is that a rewrite request is serious business. I won't waste an author's time or my own with one unless I believe it will result in publishable work that I will want to buy and IGMS readers will want to read.

But that's how I, as an editor, decide whether or not to ask for a rewrite. And the original question was how does a writer know if the story has fatal flaws or not. I'd say there you simply have to trust your own instincts. Robert Heinlein is famous for saying that you should never rewrite except to editorial order - from an editor who is prepared to buy the work. (All five of Heinlein's rules are available in a variety of places, including Rob Sawyer's web-site:

Personally speaking, several years ago I got the most scathing rejection I've ever received (from an editor I will refrain from naming) on a story I wrote titled, "Jeannie In A Bottle." The editor in question actually took the time to handwrite a note telling me the story was, among other things, "boring and predictable." I disagreed with him, so I stuck it in a new envelope and sent it to Gary Fry, editor of the British magazine Fusing Horizons. Same exact story. Didn't change a word. And Gary not only bought the story, he called it (forgive me if this sounds like bragging, but these are his exact words) "dazzlingly original, just the kind of thing I'm looking to publish." The point is, I believed it was a good story and trusted my instincts, and I'm (obviously) glad I did. It's vitally important to remember that all editors do not have the same tastes, interests, or needs.

Conversely, I've also had a few stories that were rejected several times and after I had enough distance from them, I was able to look at them objectively and say that they would never be published without major rewrites and so I abandoned them. So I guess the real answer is that if you do this long enough, you'll just know.

How's that for helpful?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

"Tabloid Reporter To The Stars" - by Eric James Stone

(Ed's note - I saved this one until the end because (as Eric mentions) the essay contains spoilers and I wanted to give people as much of a chance as possible to read the story first. If you have not read the story yet, do yourself a favor and read it before you read this.)

Warning! Includes plot spoilers for "Tabloid Reporter to the Stars."

In early 2004 I sold a story called "The Man Who Moved the Moon." It was a combination of some fairly hard science fiction with a fairly ridiculous premise, and to this day it remains one of my favorites. So, having succeeded with that rather strange combination, I decided to try it again in time for the next Writers of the Future Contest deadline.

So I wrote a first contact story, using some speculative exobiology for the hard science parts. For the ridiculous premise, I dredged up an idle thought I'd had years before about Elvis appearing to aliens.

But what made the story work for me was the narrator. Less than a year before I wrote the story, reporter Jayson Blair was fired by the New York Times for having fabricated stories, and that's what gave me the idea of a disgraced reporter looking to redeem himself. The narrative voice allowed me to inject self-deprecating humor into the story.

Having finished the story, I titled it "The First Ambassador" and sent it off to WOTF.

I was extremely happy when it was rejected seven days later. (Happy? Yes! The reason they rejected it was that I had become ineligible for the contest because my previous submission had just won second place in its quarter.)

Without the pressure of the contest deadline, I submitted the story to some of my usual critiquers. The feedback I got was generally positive, but some people had a real problem with the ending. As originally written, the revelation of the first ambassador's identity came in the last line of the story, which made it feel like a punchline.

In order to set up the punchline a little more, I changed the title to "Tabloid Reporter to the Stars," but that wasn't enough. The story got rejected several times.

When Orson Scott Card asked me if I had anything I could submit for the new online magazine he was starting (and let me tell you, being asked was one of the biggest compliments of my writing career), this story was one of four I sent for his consideration, along with "Taint of Treason" (IGMS issue 1) and "Salt of Judas" (IGMS issue 2).

After Ed Schubert took over as IGMS editor, he read the story and asked if I would rewrite the ending to make it less like a punchline. We had a good discussion about the story when we met at Dragon*Con, and over the next few weeks I wrote a new ending that kept the Elvis element but added a resolution to the conflict between the scientists.

And that's the story behind the story.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Prodigal Son Returns

Apologies to all for disappearing like that. I went to London and then southern Italy for a while and assumed I would have access to a computer every so often. I won't bore you with details, but that proved to not to be the case (not that I really, really tried all that hard, mind you....).

I'll get the next Story Behind The Story up tomorrow and then share trip details later on. And speaking of trips, one of the eight million e-mails I came home to was an invitation to come to BaltiCon in May, which I will most likely attend. Hope to see you there.

Monday, March 05, 2007

"Wisteria" - by Ada Milenkovic Brown

People who don't write are always asking writers where we get our ideas. My personal writing process is this: Stuff happens. I look at the stuff from a weird spec fictional angle and it makes me think of a setting, a character, a situation. I write that down. When three or four things I wrote down look like they should be together, I figure out a story idea that incorporates them, write an outline, and fill in the gaps.

In this case the stuff that happened was:

1) I was thinking about how my husband is kind of like my own personal Green Man. He loves to garden and has taken the one and a half acres we live on and turned it from a lawn with two skinny saplings on it to this lush grove of sycamores, magnolias, pecan trees, fig bushes, and grapevines. I think of our yard as a personal metaphor of our life together.

2) A relative of ours felt guilty that she hadn't known how close to death her husband was in his last hours and had not stayed late enough at the care facility to be with him when he died.

3) I was driving through Grimesland, NC, and thought about the potential metaphor of setting a story about a gardener in a town named after dirt. (Actually, Grimes was a civil war general, but hey, this is fiction.)

My husband had recently put in a wisteria arbor in the yard, and I liked the Southern moodiness of the word wisteria, which conjures up other words like mysterious, hysteria, wistfulness, whispering. So I thought up a story idea about a woman married to a gardener, a woman who feels guilty that she wasn't with him when he died. She sees a Green Man sculpture and then begins to see her husband's face in the leaves of their wisteria gazebo.

Because I live in NC, I often write stories with Southern settings. The South has gothic and folklore elements that lend themselves well to fantasy. Since I was hoping to learn more about writing southern fantasy from Andy Duncan at Clarion West, I chose to write "Wisteria" his week, because it was my one southern idea. I got some additional feedback from Nisi Shawl, who was helping out at the workshop that week. She suggested using an African version of the Green Man in it, since I had made the protagonist African-American. She sent me reference materials on African agricultural deities.

Reading "Wisteria" made one of the other students at the workshop cry. I hoped that was a good sign.

And that's about it. Oh, one more thing. When I submitted the story to IGMS, the wisteria on our arbor bloomed for the first time, even though it was several months out of season. I wondered if that was an omen that Ed was going to publish the story. And what do you know? It was. I guess the Green Man is really out there.

Friday, March 02, 2007

"Miniature" - by Peter Friend

In 2005, Orson Scott Card came over to Wellington to run a two-day writing workshop immediately before iCon, the New Zealand National Science Fiction Convention, and I was lucky enough to attend. Our overnight writing exercise forced us out onto the streets to look for story ideas, and my writing partner and I found ourselves interviewing an elderly train enthusiast at the library. Oddly, he didn't seem all that interested in trains in general, yet at the same time clearly felt strong emotional links to trains he remembered.

As a science fiction writer, this struck me as a charmingly human foible, ideal to confuse any visiting alien anthropologists. As a model maker, the idea of model trains appealed - both more practical to write about than real trains, of which I knew little, and of course model trains are themselves symbols of real trains. Now I had a theme going. A story about symbols, miscommunication and misunderstanding. Perhaps a comedy.

But as I lay in bed that night, thinking about a possible plot (I do much of my best writing half-asleep at midnight), I realized I wanted more than two bewildered sentient creatures arguing with each other. Sure, we use things around us as symbols, as links to other things. But is that really so uniquely human? After all, Pavlov's famous dog understood perfectly well that a bell wasn't edible, merely a symbol of an expected actual meal. Why shouldn't aliens understand symbols too? Perhaps even better than we do.

By the time I woke up, I had a much deeper plot in mind - still with the alien anthropologist and the human interviewee, but now their misunderstandings were more subtle, and they had more in common than either realized. "Miniature" began there, as a hundred or so words scribbled on an index card during breakfast.

The synopsis was well received by the other workshop attendees, but wasn't yet a story. I knew Tom was an old man, using his model railway to remember his wife, but nothing else about him. Where did he live? What was his personality? What was the alien like? How did it communicate? What should each say out loud, and what should they actually mean? Would the story include other humans, other aliens? What was the relationship between humanity and the visiting aliens? Would the story take place over weeks, days, or just a few minutes? And oh, the historical research - what sort of trains rolled along New Zealand's railway tracks in the 1960s?

A dozen rewrites and many months later, I was finished. Naturally IGMS had to be my first choice of market.

Trivia note on the railway station names - "pumahara" is the Maori word for "memory", and "paenga kore" means "infinity". Not that either Tom or the alien know that, but I think they'd both appreciate the irony…