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.