Friday, November 14, 2008

"Pi" - by Mette Ivie Harrison


In March of this year, I taught a workshop on revision with Orson Scott Card at Southern Virginia Univeristy (Edmund Schubert and Jacob Black were also there). I gave out a handout that had a list of “before” and “after” paragraphs from novels I had published. I was determined to show the embarrassing truth about how bad my first drafts are, and how an editor’s suggestions could make them better. I expected everyone to wince along with me when I read the first drafts and then to feel immense relief when I read the revised versions.

Strangely enough, there was occasionally argument about which of the two drafts was actually better. Scott stepped in at one point and insisted that he thought either draft could work; it was just a question of what effect the author (me) wanted on the reader. In fact, after reading one particular first draft paragraph, Scott suggested he would be glad to read any “first drafts” of stories I might write, for IGMS.

In the spirit of a challenge, I wrote up twelve short story ideas in the airport on the way home. I wrote only the first line at first, and then, as time stretched on and on, a couple of paragraphs. I was trying to figure out which ones would be appropriate to send to IGMS. In the end, I went home and that month wrote up 15 different short stories, most of them based around the premise of “12 Magical Apprentices,” for a possible book idea that I might one day sell to someone somewhere, because I write for YA and the whole idea of a magical apprentice seemed like one that might sell there.

I sent off the first of these stories, one that had been inspired by my twelve year old daughter’s obsessive memorization of digits of pi, to Edmund for IGMS. Some of the elements of this obsession include her printing out thousands of digits of pi and then hanging the printed papers in her bedroom, her volunteering to recite digits of pi to anyone who is willing to listen for several minutes, and having a “pi” party when my youngest son turned “pi” years old (my husband calculated this exactly) where we served, of course, pie: chocolate and coconut cream. My daughter is also very musically talented, and I once had a math teacher who was an incredible violinist and who claimed that the skills involved in making music were essentially the same as those in math: patterns repeated and twisted over and over again. I thought that this might become part of the story, but I was wrong.

After all the stories were written, I was surprised at myself, that I had been able to write so many coherent stories in what was essentially one draft. I did not plan out any of the stories in advance. For “Pi,” I knew that the magic would be about pi, and that there would be a young protagonist involved, and that perfect circles would be better than imperfect ones for magic. Other than that, I didn’t have any preconceived notions about the shape of the story. It seemed to shape itself. Some of the others did the same; some did not and these last I am not sure that I know how to fix. Maybe more of this “cycle” of stories about magical apprentices will appear in IGMS in coming issues.

But I will admit that “Pi” was not sold on a first draft. In fact, it needed a good edit, which Edmund helped me to do. He pointed out a problem in the ending of the story, and when I reread it, I saw that I actually had to fix it by subtly changing the whole story, not just the ending. Then he bought it.


Mette's story, "Pi," is in issue 10 of Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show, available now.

Mette Ivie Harrison is the author of several novels, including Mira Mirror, The Princess and The Hound, and the forthcoming sequel, The Princess and The Bear. She is also a new columnist for IGMS; her column, "Chopsticks" is chock full of great advice for writers.

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