Tuesday, December 31, 2013

At the Old Folks Home at the End of the World, by John P. Murphy

Like many avid readers, I harbor some small secret desire to live forever. Maybe not forever-forever, but enough time to get through at-the-old-folks-homethat growing stack of books on my bedside table, y'know? And my Amazon wishlist. And maybe catch up on Doctor Who, and... Look, long story short, I always kind of identified with those fantasy villains who are, shall we say, in it for the long run.

Feeling that kinship, I started to wonder at some point how many immortality seekers in a given fantasy world might have succeeded. Statistically, some of them had to, right? And what happened to them? I figure, under all the skull fortresses and forbidden tomes and dramatic armor, deep down they're really just people like me with too many good books on their bedside tables. So what would I do?

I had all that in the back of my brain at the start of the yearly Weekend Warrior flash fiction contest in the Codex writers group. One of the weeks, I got the prompt, what if everyone in the world had the same super power? I thought about immortality, and realized that even if only a handful of people had it, eventually they would be everyone. I remembered the character Ed the Undyingat-the-old-folks-home from the online game Kingdom of Loathing, and then a friend of mine's father-in-law who retired from business only to start fights in his homeowners' association, and it all kinda clicked. The story came together quickly as a series of mental images of people thrown together by virtue of being the only ones left, lonely and bored and ornery and just sort of making do. As I jotted them down, I liked the effect, and with some polishing and going back-and-forth about a few passages, I wound up with something very close to this end result.

I guess "At the Old Folks Home at the End of the World" is at its heart a "be careful what you wish for" story. Even so, I think some of Old Folks aren't yet all that sorry. As they might say, it beats the alternative.

--John P. Murphy

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Sturdy Bookshelves of Pawel Olizewski, by Ferrett Steinmetz

The Sturdy Bookshelves Of Pawel Olizewski is a unique story in my pantheon, mainly because I live-wrote every single draft of it live, to raise funds for the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop.

Now, let me explain what Clarion is to me; at age 38, I’d been writing for twenty years, and despite four novels, at least a hundred short stories, and some poetry that’s just as soon well forgotten, I had only published three stories in very small venues. My total writing revenue was just over $15 – which, at less than a dollar a year, not promising.

Then I got accepted into the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, a six-week intensive where the best writers in sci-fi train you to be better. And I learned exactly how terrible I was. Which was traumatic but a good thing. And since graduating in 2008, I’ve sold twenty-five short stories, many to markets where (like this one) I’d read for years and am now proud to be a part of.

(In 2012, I even got nominated for the Nebula, which still feels like a weird dream I’m going to wake up from any day now.)

So every spring, I live-write stories to raise funds for my alma mater in a closed community called “The Clarion Echo,” which you can only get access to by donating $5. I write, post what I wrote - and then more importantly I explain what I liked and what I didn’t like about my work. Basically, I’m critiquing my own prose, explaining all the shortfalls I’m going to have to fix on the next draft.

Except that the Sturdy Bookshelves story was written entirely for Clarion Echo. I didn’t plan it that way, but over the three years, every spring I went back to that story and said, “Well, time to rewrite it,” and so I did. So if you feel like donating $5 and emailing me at theferrett@theferrett.com, you can get access to the archives and literally see this whole story come together, with about 4,000 additional words of commentary.

Which isn’t a pitch. I’m just saying, is all.

The hardest thing to get about this story was, weirdly enough, the voice. Because the initial draft was 2,800 words, very tight, and almost character-free – more like a news report than a story, focusing on Pawel. I soon realized a tale with no character arc is really hard to do unless you’re Ted Chiang, and so I wrote a 5,000-word version of this which focused on the Nameless Narrator (or, as I took to calling him, the NN) but lost a lot of the oddball details that people found compelling. It felt bloated, and the NN really isn’t interesting enough to carry the tale.

Yet I loved the internal arc of this – and why wouldn’t I? If you think about it, the tale is really about me spending twenty pre-Clarion years writing and making the same old mistakes over and over again, hoping like heck that I’d somehow ignite my inner spark. Yet I struggled to find a narrative tone that matched. People loved this one, asking about it more than any other Clarion Echo story that I’ve written – “Did you finish it? Did that one sell?” – but I didn’t feel I’d really nailed it.

And it’s a hard balance to get. Because the NN is boring, but the story cannot be. And so in writing this you have to walk this high-wire act where the prose is snappy enough to pull you along and get you invested, but not so snappy that you could never believe that the NN was once a nebbish. Eventually, I realized that I had to err more on the side of “quirky prose and weird characters,” pulling Agnes out as a major character to counterbalance the NN, and making her oddball enough that she could tug us past a little dullness, and making the dullness not part of the prose but part of the way other people react to the NN.

For me, the secret of Clarion is revising. Like Pawel, I was making the same bookcase over and over again with each story I wrote, never learning, just sort of doubling down. What Clarion taught me was to dismantle my bookshelves, break them up and make new things out of them. If you could see all the revisions, you’d see how radically this story changed, rotating around the central heart of it.

And I hope, if you’re wandering around like Pawel, like me, some day you’ll realize how to rearrange that workshop to produce an entirely different kind of magic.

--Ferrett Steinmetz

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Once More to Kitty Hawk, by Greg Kurzawa

"Once More to Kitty Hawk" began as a simple "what if?" What if people once-more-to-kitty-hawkdidn't really die? What if they simply faded out of this existence, leaking their selves and their memories into the world around them? Its original title was "Transitions," and in the earliest draft it was a young couple suffering the transitioning of the fellow. Right away I thought that was too maudlin, so I rewrote it as a father/son relationship. Upon reflection, I don't think that made it any less tragic.  I'm not ashamed to admit that I shed a tear or two while writing it.

I've only been to Kitty Hawk once, but I remember enjoying it.  I'd very much like to go back someday.

--Greg Kurzawa

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

The Saltwater Wife, by K.C. Norton

"The Saltwater Wife" has its origins in the selkie legends, wherein the-saltwater-wifecertain seals could turn into beautiful women. Men could 'catch' these inhumanly beautiful creatures by stealing their sealskins, and thereby trapping them in their (did I mention incredibly beautiful?) human forms.

I wanted to tell a story in which some of these women retain their agency, but I also wanted to tell a story about being human. This isn't a story about some battle of the sexes; it's a story about personas. In my experience, we are all pretending on some level. I'm not saying that it's a bad thing, just that it gets complicated. I don't like to tell stories about Strong Female Characters. I like to tell stories about human nature. Even if my characters aren't always, you know, technically human. Thus, selkies and shifting identities were in. Sexy fish-ladies were right out.

One final note: In reality, eels and groupers do hunt together. They're one of the few common inter-species hunting pairs found in nature. The eel swims into tiny crevices to flush out prey; the grouper snaps up the victim, leaving some nibbles for the eel. They're an insanely efficient hunting team. Is this a metaphor? Perhaps.

--K.C. Norton