Friday, June 29, 2012

Master Madrigal's Mechanical Man—Scott Mikula

By day I'm a software developer, so I'm well acquainted with the tension between perfection and pragmatism.  When software is "finished" it still has countless bugs and blemishes and I always cringe to see it go out into the world.  But the fact is, millions of people use the software every day and it generally does what they need it to do.  If we waited until it was perfect, it would never get used at all.

But software is business.  You have to make tradeoffs like that.  What master-madrigals-mechanical-manabout art?  If a painting, or a novel, or a performance has its desired effect on the audience, is that good enough, or does it deserve to be polished to perfection?  And artists need to eat too.  Where's the line between art and business, anyway?

But those questions are where this story ended up.  Where it started was a simple challenge to myself: take a science fiction trope and revitalize it by turning it into a fantasy story.  But what to use?  Computers?  There are a million opportunities there.  Space travel?  Hmm...  Robots?  That struck a chord.  What would be the fantasy version of a robot?  Maybe a golem, an artificial creature created from clay to do the bidding of humans.  No, I wanted a more literal robot.  But since this was fantasy, it would not be called a robot; it would be an automaton, and instead of being powered by electricity and controlled by circuits, it would get its strength from tightly coiled springs and be full of intricate gears and levers and pneumatic tubes.

master-madrigals-mechanical-manFrom there, ideas zinged left and right.  Back to computers, I was inspired by the idea of computerized chess and the quest to develop a machine that could beat the world's best human players.  Deep Blue became my mechanical swordsman (and I suppose Garry Kasparov became Lybron, although any resemblance there is coincidental).  Madrigal's character was easy, but that's because he was a cliché: the too-proud inventor.  I needed someone to clash with him.  It was when I came up with my narrator, Cetta--the not-quite-apprentice, serving as his hands--that the story fully came to life.

I dislike twist endings that depend on hiding the main character's thoughts or motivations from the reader.  But this story had a problem: Cetta didn't actually grow or change by the end of it.  Giving the main character some sort of transformation is key to a satisfying story.  I saw an opportunity to do something I normally dislike: use an unreliable narrator to conceal one key motivation (although abundant clues to that motivation are scattered throughout) until after the fact.  The effect, I hope, is that even though Cetta hasn't been transformed, the ending is satisfying because your understanding of her has been.

As for me, do I agree with the choice Cetta made?  Maybe.  I'll say this much: I empathize with her.  I understand where she's coming from, and as far as this story is concerned she couldn't have done anything else.

--Scott Mikula

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Thieftaker - By David B. Coe (writing as D.B. Jackson)

A bonus for all you story-behind-the-story fans: I invited David B. Coe, author of several stories published in IGMS, to talk a little bit about the creation of his latest novel, Thieftaker, especially the role short stories played in the shaping of the larger work, and boy did he deliver.




A week from today, my newest novel, THIEFTAKER, book one in the Thieftaker Chronicles, will be released by Tor Books.  Though this will be my first published book under the name D.B. Jackson, it is my thirteenth published novel overall. (I’m not superstitious.  Not at all.  But after typing that, I turned around three times, threw salt over my right shoulder, and drank water from the opposite side of a cup.  I’m not sure that will save me from bad luck, but my hiccups have gone away . . .)  With all those novels under my belt, you might think that I develop one project pretty much the way I’ve developed all the others.  But THIEFTAKER, a historical urban fantasy, has been different in a number of ways, not least among them the role that short fiction has played in my conception of the series.

            The historical element of the Thieftaker Chronicles lies at the very core of each volume.  The books are set in Colonial Boston in the mid and late 1760s, as the North American colonies are beginning to chafe at British rule.  Each book is a stand-alone mystery interwoven with a particular historical event. So, for instance, THIEFTAKER, the first volume, begins with the murder of a young woman, which coincides with the Stamp Act riots that swept through Boston in the summer of 1765.  With the second book, THIEVES’ QUARRY (Tor Books 2013), I blend another murder mystery with the British occupation of Boston, which began in September 1768.  For both books, the historical setting provides far more than a mere backdrop for the action; it informs nearly every aspect of my plotting and character development.

            Thieftaker and its sequels also differ from my previous books in that they are far more dependent on the voice of a single character.  Ethan Kaille, my protagonist, is the sole point of view character for the series.  My readers experience every event and revelation through Ethan; his perceptions, emotions, and senses suffuse the narrative.  I have sought to make his voice both as authentic and as sympathetic as possible.  This has demanded a fine balance.  I want Ethan to be clearly a man of the eighteenth century.  But I also want my twenty-first century readers to relate to him as fully as they would any contemporary character.

            Predictably, creating a believable setting and an engaging protagonist has required a great deal of research and background work.  It has also required what I would call, for want of a better word, “practice.”  And by practice, I mean the writing of short fiction.

            I should pause here to say that I love writing and reading short stories, and don’t view them merely as something we writers do to pave the way for our novels.  Far from it.  Some of the best work being done in the genre right now is in the short form.  But I would be lying if I didn’t also say that writing short stories is a terrific way for novelists to lay the creative groundwork for longer projects.  In fact, I would argue that working on shorter pieces offers (at least) five distinct benefits for novelists.

-- First, crafting short fiction helps us establish a writing style for the larger work, both in terms of setting a tone for the narrative and honing the voice of our point of view character (or characters).  The more we write in a world, and the more we use a certain character’s perspective, the more comfortable we grow with those narrative tools. 

-- Second, these shorter works give us an opportunity to experiment with story lines to see which ones have the potential to develop into novel-length works.  Sometimes a short story is meant to be just that; sometimes, however, as we dive into a story line, we find that there is more to the tale than we ever imagined, or than a short work can contain.

-- Third, short stories allow us to explore in detail episodes from our characters’ pasts that might be crucial to understanding their personalities, their circumstances, and their emotional reactions to all the terrible things we do to them in the novel.  The details we discover with such stories might never find their way into the book, but they give us more to work with as we develop character. 

-- Fourth, writing in the short form teaches us concision and forces us to be more precise with our wording.  The short form by its very nature demands a leanness and directness of style that can make all of us better writers. 

-- And finally, short stories give us something to market as we’re writing the longer work.  While lots of writers publish novels before they sell their first short stories, it remains true that having a short story sale to one’s credit can facilitate finding an agent and securing that first book contract.

            I had already signed contracts for the first two Thieftaker books before I sold a short story in the Thieftaker universe, but in every other respect I have used short fiction in the ways I just outlined.  I have improved the narrative voice of the books, learned a great deal about my main character, experimented with plot lines that I intend to work into future volumes, and honed my craft, all while managing to sell several stories.

            I won’t mention all of the stories here, but I will point you to a few of them.  One, “A Memory of Freedom,” appeared in the March issue of Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show.  It tells the story of how my lead character first became a thieftaker.  Another, “A Spell of Vengeance,” has just been published at  It introduces a villain named Nate Ramsey, who I expect will be appearing in future Thieftaker books.  And a third, “The Witch of Dedham,” can be read for free at the D.B. Jackson website (  This one is a character sketch more than anything else, but it was great fun to write and allowed me to further refine Ethan’s voice.

            Writing these stories has been its own reward.  I love the way all of them came out, and take a good deal of pride in the sales I’ve made.  But my point is that even if I had never sold any of them, the Thieftaker books would be richer for my having written them.  This will seem self-evident, but writing makes us better writers.  And because of the particular demands of the short form -- the need to construct tighter story arcs, the emphasis on brevity and economy, the close focus on character -- writing these particular pieces can’t help but improve our skills.  Even after fifteen years and thirteen novels (turn, throw, drink . . .) I still find that I learn something new from each short that I write. I have no doubt that the next Thieftaker book will be even better because of the stories I’ve written this spring.

--David B. Coe

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Snake King Sells Out—Rahul Kanakia

Perhaps I'm betraying my youth and class origins here, but the working world still feels very strange to me. In school, your primary business is the formulation of a personal identity.

the-snake-king-sells-outThe whole basis of the enterprise is that you don't really matter: you're a vessel that needs to be filled up with knowledge and then lobbed at some target. School is all about becoming something.

A school is like a home. It is forced to take you in, and it uses pretty heavy-handed measures to ensure compliance on your part. In school, the focus is on getting away with things and with testing limits and ducking the system.

But the working world is completely different. You're no longer presumed to be valueless. In fact, you're being paid for your time. And there's no longer that element of compulsion. If you don't want to be at your workplace, then they're happy to toss you out. Thus, a workplace contains less need for rebellion and differentiation. In the working world, your primary business is to learn how to generate as little friction as possible. In some ways, work destroys much of the personal development that occurred in school.

When I was in school, all my dreams for the future were subtly tinged by the flavors of school. My dreams were social dreams: I dreamed of myself as the colorful king of ever-larger playgrounds. I thought that success meant having the largest, most faithful, and best-connected clique. I took it for granted that life was played out at the level of the community. But, since graduating, my dreams have become more personal. I've started to see the transience of community. And my dreams have started to work on the level of environment. I've started to dream about inhabiting places (both interior and exterior) that are beautiful and free and full of interesting things.

I wrote this story when I was in the midst of this shift. I'd just left Washington, D.C. and was transitioning towards work as an independent consultant. I was no longer putting on a tie and going to work every day. In some ways, I was trying to go back to school. I'd moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area (where I went to school). I was wearing sandals and sleeping until noon every day. I was associating with many of my old college friends—people who'd never left the area.

At times I thought that maybe I was missing out. I felt like I'd left mythe-snake-king-sells-out community behind, and that it had continued to grow in my absence. I'd enjoyed my time in the jacket-and-tie world, but I was sad that it seemed to have stunted my growth: I felt like I was never going to be the off-beat, self-actualized person that I'd once dreamed of being.

I wrote the first draft of this story in January 2011. The story was originally much longer and ended in a very glum fashion: Perry realized that he could never regain the things that he'd lost.

After several rounds of revision resulted in the removal of about 1000 words from the story, I proceeded to include it in my writing sample for a number of applications to Master of the Fine Arts programs in creative writing.

Nine months later (at about the time that many [though not all] of those programs were rejecting me), I got an email from editor Edmund Schubert saying that he had a positive abhorrence for my chosen ending. However, if I wanted to rewrite the ending, then he'd consider publishing the story.

After several rewrites, I came upon the current ending. During the course of my revisions on this story, I was finally able to move the story past my personal experience and start using it to explore the various changes in the gay community over the past few decades and, more generally, in the evolution of various subaltern groups over time.

The final ending hit a note of hope and progress that I could not have achieved a year and a half ago, when this story was newly-formulated. I'm grateful to Edmund for seeing something
worthwhile in the story and offering me a chance to revise it. Since writing this story, I've had an exhilarating time. I've made friends, found new communities, and done some tremendous self-actualization. But I also feel like I've started to move beyond those school-boy dreams.

I no longer feel like I'm in the process of becoming something.

--Rahul Kanakia

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Calling the Train—Jeff Stehman

Calling the Motivation

The prompt: "Write about a musical instrument that controls life and/or death." Short, simple, to the point. And it fell into my brain like a stone into a dry well. No splash, just a dull, distant thud.

Winter is my favorite season. It brings cross-country skiing and the Codex Writers' Group Weekend Warrior flash fiction contest. Five weeks, five prompts posted on Friday night / Saturday morning, a story with at most 750 words due Sunday night. Voting is open until it's time for the next set of prompts. Each writer's top three stories add up to a final score, winner takes all. (Since we're writers, "all" means the rest of us saying, "Hurray! You've won!" It's very prestigious.)

Competition, tight deadlines, an underdog against high-caliber opponents. This is my element. I look forward to each set of prompts with great anticipation, postponing any writing for a day or two beforehand so my brain won't get distracted with unfinished work.

At last the prompts go up, and I pounce! Which is to say I stare at them for 10-15 minutes, a sense of impending doom slowly building in my gut.

No lightning. No inspiration. Nothing to even pique my interest. My muse is asleep in the next room, and I'm not sure she'll ever wake again.

What am I doing in this group? Any moment now someone will point and say, "But he's not wearing any clothes."

To stave off depression, I immerse myself in something that will keep my brain occupied with anything other than writing. I don't actually vacuum the cat, but I sometimes vacuum up leftover pieces of the cat; futile, but time-consuming. A few hours later, my muse's unpaid intern will politely knock and say, "I have a few notes I thought you might want to look over." Yeah, I might be able to work with this.

By the time I go to bed Saturday night, I have a rough draft. And it's brilliant. Or clever. Or funny. I go to sleep happy. But in the night the writing gremlins come, and when I read the story again Sunday afternoon, it's dreck. Can I salvage anything from this? At least enough to submit a coherent story and avoid humiliation? 'Cause let's face it, after the trauma of reading the prompts and drawing a blank, not sucking is my primary motivation.

Fortunately, Sunday tends to be a long, slow day, and I can usually submit a story I'm satisfied with before going to bed. (Voting might imply my standards are low, but after-submission neuroses are a whole different kettle of fish.)

"Calling the Train" was my first flash fiction and my first Weekend Warrior entry, written in response (eventually) to the first prompt listed. It set the stage for all the entries to follow: blank stare; I'm doomed; distraction; well, maybe I can use this...

I can't wait until next winter. I just hope we get more snow.

--Jeff Stehman

Monday, June 04, 2012

Blank Faces—M.K. Hutchins

"Blank Faces" began with a rejection letter. I sent the rejected tale to another market and plopped down to write a new story -- a better one. I'm stubborn. I've always told myself that if I fail at writing, it's not going to be because I gave up. Often, I outline, but for "Blank Faces" I started with nothing more than the notion of writing a Western-flavored fantasy.

Perhaps because I didn't plan extensively, the ideas flowed from my past. I got my degree studying archaeology. One of the field'sblank-faces messiest ethical questions is if/when to dig up burials. Using bones stolen from Native American graves to power steampunk contraptions set the tone of the story for me.

Another crucial bit of this story came from my teenage years. I was put in charge of an organization and had to ask two other girls to pitch in as assistants. One of the girls I asked usually sat in the back row. She always acted out. "Team player" wasn't her best description -- and I heard adults complain about her frequently.

I don't think anyone had trusted her to be responsible before. The change was dramatic. She appeared to all meetings early, notes in hand, ready to work. In truth, I did almost nothing -- this girl volunteered for every task and delivered on her promises. The notion crept into my fifteen-year-old head that people often live up to the expectations of others.

Conversely, I liked that I was able to take a character who'd spent most of her life as a victim -- as a slave -- and have her be somebody blank-facesremarkable. I've read a number of stories where the evil villain comes from an abusive background, and it inevitably depresses me. Where's the hope for recovery? Maybe I'm optimistic, but I loved writing Miss Annie. I couldn't help but think of Bishop Myriel from Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, and the plot unfolded from there.

On the downside of writing without an outline, the story took several heavy revisions to get right. In the original draft, the curse only made people more violent and prone to steal; some of the characters doubted the curse even existed. It led to a flat, ambiguous story where the steampunk elements seemed disconnected from the whole. I tossed it in the drawer for several months before coming up with the idea of blank faces. The story now had something concrete to stand on, and better yet, dehumanized vision dovetailed nicely with treating human remains no differently than a lump of gold.

--M.K. Hutchins