Friday, March 06, 2009

"Tekkai Exhales His Avatar" - by Tony Pi

Twenty-Four Hours in Pasadena

It might be hard to believe, but "Tekkai Exhales His Avatar" started with a polar bear.

The Writers of the Future workshop in Pasadena, August 2007 put us through a dreaded but exhilarating challenge: the 24-hour story. We'd each receive a random object, go interview a random stranger, and pull random books at the local library. Once we had those seeds, we had to write a complete short story within twenty-four hours. Three people's stories would be critiqued the next day by our peers as well as Tim Powers and Kathy Wentworth. Talk about pressure!

Kathy gave me my random object, a tiny polar bear on a red pole, likely from a toy carousel. The bear made me think I'd be writing an Inuit tale, so when I got to the library, I tracked down books on Inuit and Greenlandic mythology. I learned fascinating things on those topics, but I had also pulled a few volumes on Japanese myth by chance, and jotted down whatever nuggets of information that caught my eye.

That left the interview with a total stranger. We weren't supposed to tell anyone that we were writers, and simply talk to someone and pry their life stories out of them. Not so easy! I failed miserably trying to engage people in conversation, and only managed to ask a scruffy-looking guy what he did with the empty water bottles he was collecting.

When it came time to sit down and write, I had absolutely no idea how my different pieces of research would fit together, if at all!

But Tim's advice was to think at the keyboard, so that's what I did.

I mashed my ideas together, hard, and decided the fallout looked like a multiverse fantasy that would take an immortal hero from Greenlandic legend to feudal Japan. (Plot? No clue, yet.) But then it occurred to me that the universes in the story only seemed like fantasy, but were actually interconnected virtual worlds. They would be mimicstreams, artificial realities built from the world's collective sensory experiences, each with a basis on a world mythology.

I had my worlds, but who would be the main character, and what would he want? Well, suppose the man I met lived on the fringes of society. Maybe he had run-ins with the law, even spent time in jail. What if my hero was stuck in prison? (Correction: anti-hero.) Why would the government need his help, and what could they tempt him with?

Answer: they needed a hacker to help them catch someone. Not just any hacker, but one of the best. And they offered him freedom to see his son.

I ran with it. I cut out my intended prelude in the land of ice, since I had no time to show how he got caught. Instead, I focused on the Japanese angle.

Then came the frantic typing, rushing my characters blindly into the unknown. I remember a couple of caffeine runs, slapdash chicken sandwiches, and about five hours sleep somewhere in there. But I had no ending until two hours before the deadline, when something Tim said in class suddenly clicked into place. I managed a last surge of key-pounding and finished the story, with fifteen minutes to deadline.

As luck would have it, my story was among the ones selected for critique. It was nerve-wracking sitting in the hot seat, having my classmates and instructors pick apart the barely-edited piece -- but in the end, they all gave great insights that helped me revise the story. All that remains of that first polar bear story seed are the snow motif and the creatures of Japanese myth.

Overall, the 24-hour writing challenge was odd and exhausting, but also an invaluable teaching tool. The rapid-fire method creates quite a different work than if I took my time with the ideas. My experience writing this story has made it quite close to my heart.

One last thing: many thanks to the editors at Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show for allowing my cousin to illustrate "Tekkai Exhales His Avatar". I-Wei's art appeared in IGMS #1, and he also designs working steampunk robots. It was a blast collaborating with him on the artwork, leaving us nostalgic for the days when we were kids, inventing incredible stories and gluing magazine cuttings together to make them real.

And it's still fun.