Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Our Vast and Inevitable Death—S. Boyd Taylor

our-vast-and-inevitable-death“Our Vast and Inevitable Death”, or OVID, as I like to call it, sprang from the collision of a variety of different ideas and memories. Tracking it’s genesis and evolution goes back not just years, but decades. You may find this surprising for a 750-word flash piece, but I do not. A lot of my writing is like this.

Let me start at the beginning: Somewhere around 1992, I read On the Beach, Nevil Shute's 1957 novel of what happens after a nuclear war. Basically, most of the world is dead, except for Australia -- no one had any reason to nuke them. So the last American submarines go to shore there, and everyone waits for the radiation that will eventually come in and kill them all. The book is about how different people react in the face of certain death, which is fascinating, and -- even though I was only 16 years old --  I swore I would one day write a Fantasy-genre paean to it.

The plan was to write a novel, of course -- specifically a huge, depressing, novel about villagers and soldiers and everyone else trapped inside a castle with the Boskee sitting outside, grinding away at the defenses with zero hope they could be stopped. Since I was 16, however, and as I had not ever written anything longer than 5,000 words, the novel soon fell to pieces and went off on tangents about completely unrelated things -- the moon crashing into the earth, the death of elves, blah blah blah.

But those damn Boskee would never leave me alone.our-vast-and-inevitable-death

Fast forward about ten years, and I’m reading about Genghis Khan, and how he would slaughter every man in a city, if it resisted him (and sometimes even if it didn’t!). He was unstoppable, a force of nature. In the central square of Samarkand, the blood was waist-high from the beheadings. But for some reason, historians really seemed to like Genghis. One guy I read -- I cannot remember who -- kept going on and on about how he developed this huge communications network, and how quality of life improved for those under him, but I kept remembering all that blood in Samarkand. That stayed with me too.

And then one day not long ago, I’m trundling along, and I think -- I need a flash piece. I haven’t written anything close to standard Fantasy in years. Okay. So Fantasy.

How about I make it Epic Fantasy? Doing an epic in flash, that seems really tough. So I’ll need a huge war, people dying... Imagine here, if you will, the sound of gears clicking suddenly into place and the doors of an ancient tomb grinding open. And out comes Genghis Khan and the Boskee and On the Beach, and they all demand to be heard.

our-vast-and-inevitable-deathSuddenly there is Warlord Grig striding along the battlements ala the ghost at opening of Hamlet, and there is a conversation -- and then there are mountains with the name “Shan” after them (“mountain” in Chinese”) -- and then I am challenging myself to cram as much emotion as I can into this piece -- because emotion is the powerhouse of fiction -- and then, AHA, I know what I need, I know what will make this piece ring: I need a flash-forward!

Here’s my dirty little secret: I love flash-forwards. Too many people undervalue fiction in future tense. Heck, a lot of writing books skip it entirely, while they have an entire section on Second Person.

Cormac McCarthy does an excellent flash-forward in “Blood Meridian,” a really powerful scene where you find out that at three of the major characters will be dead inside a year. That’s where I really fell in lust with the technique and saw what it could do.

So I decide -- since it’s a powerful and rare technique, the flash-forward will be the emotional climax of the piece. The reader will see how everything plays out and how things progress, and then I will come back to the present for the denouement/falling action.

And then -- BOOM. It’s done. Standard editorial practices apply: a re-read later, then a first reader, and then submissions. And, wow, it turns out IGMS wants a story about the Boskee, Genghis Khan, and On the Beach. Who knew?

--S. Boyd Taylor

P.S. - The irony should not be lost on you that this blog post is almost as long as the story itself.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Memory of Freedom—D.B. Jackson

Writing “A Memory of Freedom” was, in many ways, a journey of discovery for me. I have been writing about Ethan Kaille, the lead character in my Thieftaker Chronicles, for a couple of years now. The first book in the series, THIEFTAKER, was finished long ago, and will be released by Tor Books in July 2012. The second volume, THIEVES’ QUARRY is already in production. I have written several other short stories set in the alternate Colonial Boston I created for the Thieftaker series. But while I have known for some time the details of Ethan Kaille’s life, there have been certain elements of his history to which I hadn’t given much thought.

a-memory-of-freedomOne of these was the simple question of how he first became a thieftaker. That was what I sought to figure out as I began writing this short story. I started off with a set of givens: Ethan has served nearly fourteen years at hard labor on a sugar plantation in Barbados for his involvement in a mutiny aboard a privateering ship; he is a conjurer, but he has eschewed spellmaking for years in part because he blames his conjuring talents for his involvement in the mutiny that ruined his life, and in part because he fears being hanged as a “witch,” a fate that befalls many conjurers in eighteenth century Massachusetts; he has returned to Boston broke, disgraced, alone and desperate to find some way to support himself; and while he is embittered by his past and all that he has lost, he has not yet given up his humanity. I also had some faint inkling of the small mystery that would present itself during the course of the story.

But as I started to write, I didn’t know how he would turn his current a-memory-of-freedomcircumstances into a new life, nor was I certain how he would rediscover his aptitude for spellmaking.

Quite often, when working with characters who have become familiar to us, we writers give up planning and outlining, and simply trust that the characters themselves will tell us what we need to know in order to write their stories. That’s what I did with “A Memory of Freedom.” I don’t think I have ever known any character as well as I know Ethan, nor have I ever trusted a character so thoroughly. He didn’t disappoint me.

In the end, his embrace of a new trade and his return to conjuring allowed this tale to mark the transition from his old life to the new one about which I’ve written in other stories.

I should also take a moment to comment on the historical elements of this story and the Thieftaker books. I have a doctorate in U.S. history, and had long looked for a way to blend my fascination with history with my love of fantasy. In the Ethan Kaille stories, I finally have found the perfect vehicle for this combination. The Boston I have created for the stories and books is as true to actual history as I could make it, save for two rather significant historical conceits.

a-memory-of-freedomFirst, while there were thieftakers -- private citizens who recovered stolen items and, for a fee, returned them to their rightful owners -- in England throughout the eighteenth century, and while there were a few thieftakers in cities of the New World early in the nineteenth century, there is no evidence that anyone worked that trade in pre-Revolutionary America. There was no established police force in Boston at this time. The night watch was not an effective crime fighting force, and the Sheriff of Suffolk County had no officers working under his command. So it is quite easy to imagine that thieftakers could have worked the streets of the city. But as I say, there is no historical evidence suggesting that they actually did.

And second, as far as I know, there were no conjurers in the Boston of the 1760s. But I could be wrong about that.

-- D. B. Jackson

Monday, April 02, 2012

In the Fading Light of Sundown—Nancy Fulda

"In the Fading Light of Sundown" began as an entry in the yearly Codexian Idol story contest.  Codexian Idol is a beloved tradition in in-the-fading-light-of-sundownmy online writers' group (which, if you haven't already guessed, is called Codex.)  Inspired by the popular tv show American Idol, the contest is run in three rounds.  In the first round, authors upload 500 words of a newly-written story.  The submissions that rank highest in the voting proceed to Round 2, in which the authors upload the next 1000 words, and the top-ranking stories proceed to the final round, in which the entire story is submitted.  Since the authors are writing the stories as the contest progresses, there's a sort of frantic scramble to keep up with your story as it proceeds from round to round.

Now, it so happens that my Nebula Nominated short story "Movement" began its existence as a Codexian Idol contest entry, exactly one year before I wrote "In the Fading Light of Sundown".  A lot of things went wrong for me in that contest.  I'd fumbled the opening of "Movement" a bit, and it got voted out in the first round.  This was good in many ways, because it helped me hone in on the critical conflict of "Movement" and put it right there in the opening scene; obviously a good decision given the way that particular story has taken off.

But... dang.  Getting booted out of the first round of Codexian Idol was a bit bruising to my esteem.

So when I wrote "In the Fading Light of Sundown", I took great care to introduce a vivid world, a character with heart, and a central in-the-fading-light-of-sundownconflict early on.  I also wrote the entire story during Round 1.  (This is legal.  It even says so in the contest rules.)  I'm often an organic writer, and I frequently go back and tweak a story's opening once I've finished the first draft and actually know where the plot is going.  Since Codexian Idol forbids you to change your first 500 words once they're submitted, the only way to be certain I'd gotten the opening right was to write the whole dang story at the outset.

The story seed for "In the Fading Light of Sundown" was a fabulous picture located by our contest coordinator.  The picture showed a boat, pulled up on a sandy shore, with roots sprouting from the planks and gnarling their way to the ground.  That picture became the basis for the Livewood and the central speculative premise of the story.  In choosing a character to sail my boat, I consciously chose to use an old man.  Why?  Because I was in the middle of writing several stories with young, spunky female protagonists, and I wanted to stretch myself.  With Tobis I was forced to tread new ground, look at life from a new angle and discover a kind of story I wouldn't otherwise have written.

I am very, very pleased with the way it all turned out.

--Nancy Fulda

Asst. Editor’s note: Ms. Fulda mentioned it above, but I thought I’d re-mention it for those that read quickly: her amazing short story, MOVEMENT has been nominated for a Nebula award.  The ending alone is strong enough to recommend it for a win, and that’s without considering the extremely well-composed beginning and middle. 

Here’s a link (in case you missed the one provided by Ms. Fulda in her write-up.


-- Scott M. Roberts