Sunday, June 29, 2014

Making Writing a Story as easy as Eating a Hot Dog

On June 23rd of this year I received an email from Trevor Quachri, the editor of Analog Science Fiction & Fact magazine, telling me that he was going to publish my short story, Robot Boss.  The contract would take three to four weeks to arrive.  He didn’t even see the need for any edits at this time.  
This was an email that made me very, very happy.  Analog, along with Asimov’s Science Fiction and The Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy, where the three publications I read all the time after getting hooked on science fiction and fantasy as a middle-schooler.  When I decided to become a writer, one of my dreams was to see a story of mine published in each of these magazines.  I had a story published in Asimov’s September 2011 issue entitled, “Shadow Angel.”  Once Robot Boss sees print, I only have Science Fiction & Fantasy to break into to fulfill that dream.  
While happy with this accomplishment, I am also frustrated by it as well.  I told my dad I wanted to be a writer when I was a junior in High School.  I reaffirmed the decision, after a long stint trying to become a working actor, in the late eighties when I returned to writing.  My very first work of published fiction was a story called, “Random Access,” which appeared in the Sept/Oct 1990 issue of a magazine called Anthropomorphic Science Fiction, a Hugo nominated, professional publication that unfortunately has gone out of print.  Not counting the role-playing game articles I published, which weren’t fiction and were derived from other people’s work, and the comic book stories I published, which were collaborative efforts, it took me twenty-one years to see the publication of my second piece of writing. 
This is not a turnaround that can sustain a career as a professional writer, which is my ultimate goal.  
A few weeks ago, in my May 24th entry, Rethinking Problems Freakily, I made mention of an interview I had heard on the radio with Steven D. Levitt, one of the authors of the best-selling book, Freakonomics.  In the interview, which dealt with how he is applying the economic concepts from his book to address other problems, he talked about Takeru Kobayashi, the Coney Island hot dog eating champion that doubled the world record on his first attempt, and how Mr. Kobayashi’s training a twist on the goal of most people in the competition.  
Instead of trying to figure out how to eat a lot of hot dogs as fast as possible.  Kobayashi tried to figure out how to make one hot dog easy to eat.  
By way of this long introduction, I am taking my first step in twisting my own goal around.  For years I’ve tried to figure out how to write and submit a bunch of short stories.  Now, I’m going to work on figuring out how I can make one story, whichever one I’m working on now, easier to finish and submit.  To do that, I thought I’d review the three short stories I’ve sold thus far and find out what they have in common.  
Here we go...
Random Access
Random Access was written in a single night and submitted the next day, making it the faster turnaround for any story I’ve written and sent out.  Unfortunately I can remember next to nothing about the process I used despite years of trying to figure it out  
The story was actually the result of two other stories colliding together, the way the Earth and Moon were created by the Mars sized object that slammed into the spinning ball of debris that our planet and attending satellite was born from.  One story was a sappy romance about the inevitability of true love, one I was writing in celebration of the relationship I was in at the time.  The other was a science fiction story I was working on about computers taking control of people by rewriting their memories.  
Random Access got its start the night my girlfriend at the time asked me to meet her at a coffee shop near her home.  She told me that she was breaking up with me.
Driving home, I remember not really feeling sad about it.  I kept thinking to myself that I was taking it very well.  I was still in what I perceived to be a neutral state when I got home and walked into my bedroom.  The first thing I saw were the two manuscripts for the stories I described sitting side by side on my writing desk.  
“That’s one story.”  I said it out loud and pointed at the two manuscripts.  I immediately sat down and started editing and combining the stories into one; a story about a young man who goes to see his psychologist, actually an AI expert system, to get over the pain and depression of losing the woman he thought was his one true love.  The AI helps him by rewriting his recollection of the affair to where she was just, “someone I slept with a few times.”  
I finished writing the story that night.  The next morning I read it again.  I remember switching the position of two paragraphs.  That was all the editing I did.  I then printed out a submission copy, stuck it into an envelope and sealed it.  I selected Anthropomorphic Science Fiction because it was on the top of the alphabetical list of science fiction magazines I had.  
It sold.  It appeared in their Sept/Oct 1990 issue.
The only thing I can remember clearly about Random Access while it was being crafted were two things: I knew I had a story.  I knew how the story needed to be told from the parts I had before me.  It took me a very long time to recall even that much.  
Shadow Angel
Shadow Angel was born from a misunderstanding.  
I was sitting in my cubicle at work.  Someone came up to me, bringing a work order and some records with them.  While I was typing something at my computer, they put the work order and records into my Incoming tray.  
“I need you to get this job done before it gets sent to me.”  
Huh?  I turned the face them.  It took only a few moments to work out that I hadn’t heard them correctly.  They needed the job done before they could send a message to the client.  Oh.  Ok.  Got it.  Very doable.  
But the misunderstood phrase stuck with me.  Nor did it remain static.  I would hear other things throughout the day that would push it, reshape it, tear it apart and reassemble it.  By the time I was getting into my car to drive home, it had evolved into another sentence.  
“I need you to take me to Broombridge before this gets sent to me.”  
I knew it was the first line of a story.  I knew nothing else.  Who was talking.  What “this” was.  Why it was important to get to this place called Broombridge before whatever it was in this person’s hand got sent to them.  How this was to be accomplished.  
I got home and opened a file and started writing, to figure out the answers to these questions.  This was in May of 2008.  By this time, I’d developed the practice of keeping what I called “Word Palettes” on all the projects I was working on.  Word Palettes are files where I date the entry, write about the story, write test passages, or even write scenes that I cut and paste into the manuscript later.  
I knew I didn’t have a story at first.  It took about five months of writing to figure the story out.  The person speaking started off as “Angela,” but later became, “Hanuel,” which is Korean for “angel.”  
On 10/24/08, I had enough of a story to write a logline.  This is a single sentence, 15 words long, or as close to that as I can make it, that encapsulates the story.  I got this practice from The Snowflake Method, created by Randy Ingermanson.  He created it as a tool for writing novels, but with some paring down it works for short stories, too.  
It took me a long time to get to the final draft of Shadow Angel.  One reason is that I wanted a different sort of FTL (Faster Than Light) travel method for my future universe, so there was weeks of research for that.  Also, it was important for me that this story get published, to impart a sort of blessing on my technological background so I felt free to use it in future stories.  
Mostly, though, the time was spent figuring out how to tell the story.  With Shadow Angel,  unlike Random Access, I was very aware of every decision made to include or exclude something.  Every name, every scene, every beat was shaped to fit with what came before and after.  I knew I had a story.  I just couldn’t figure out how to tell it.  
On 10/29/09, I combined something I had learned about the mind’s default network with the FTL navigation system I envisioned and realized that the story needed to be told as a series of hallucinatory flashbacks.  I scraped every previous version of the story I’d written and started writing again.  I eventually finished and submitted it to Asimov’s Science Fiction on 10/3/10.  
It sold.  It appeared in their September, 2011 issue.  
Writing Shadow Angel was the antithesis of writing Random Access.  It took five months to see the story, then another 19 to figure out how to write it.  But I was keenly aware of where I was with the story at every point of its development.  I crafted that story down to the last comma and period.  It is one of the reasons I’m so proud of it.  
Like Random Access, though, I was very clear on when I had a story.  And once I figured out how it needed to be told, I worked and worked to get it to that point.  
And also like Random Access, it appeared in the September issue of the magazine that bought it.  I never noticed that until I started working on this blog entry.  
Robot Boss
Robot Boss was also born at work, from the frustration I’m sure every manager has when dealing with employees.  One particular day, when I couldn’t seem to get the people that report to me to perform the simplest of tasks, I expressed my frustration to one of my fellow managers by saying that I’d replace everyone in the department with robots if I could.  I even showed them a website that had the type of robots I envisioned the company buying.  
Then I read an article in Scientific American about how, in the future, it is much more likely that human bosses will be replaced with AI expert systems.  The AI would give the directions and the human workers would do those things the AI had trouble doing.  Experiments were already being conducted show that this arrangement was much more efficient that having human bosses direct robots or the current arrangement of humans ordering humans around.  
Which meant that I would be more likely to be replaced by a robot than my employees.  After that, “Well, that sucks,” moment, I began to wonder what a society might be like.  
On 10/7/13 I opened a Word Palette file for Robot Boss.  I took the advise from a writing teacher years ago, who said the best way to come up with a science fiction story was to imagine what you do for a living 50 or 100 years in the future.  I took my department at work and replaced me with an AI.  I picked a typical disaster.  I worked out the ramifications.  I had a story in the very first session.  
I started using the Snowflake Method the very next day.  Robot Boss is one of the most “science fictional” stories I’ve written, where the idea behind the story is almost a hidden character throughout.  It was important to me that this concept of people working for AIs was there in every scene and decision point, but that it not bang people over the head when they read it.  
The story went much faster than I remember it going (it always feels like it takes forever).  My current schedule allows for fewer words per day, but I  put those words in every day.  With Robot Boss, I followed a newly developed process where everything is written into the Word Palette, and the usable parts are cut and pasted into a separate manuscript.  It makes finding previous revisions that much faster.  
At one point, I realized I was stuck.  I spent several days unable to get from “B to C” per what I wrote down.  On 11/21/13, I summarized my story as a fairy tale.  I even started, “Once upon a time...” and retold the story very simply.  By the end of the fairy tale version I realized I was creating a “No and...” situation for him, he doesn’t get what he wants in a scene, AND something worse happens on top of that, when it needed to be a “Yes, but...” result, he gets what he wants, BUT some unexpected bad result is there as well.  
Once unstuck, I rewrote the previous scenes to set up the “Yes, but...” scene I needed to have and carried forward.  I continued to write and rewrite throughout December.  I established a new writing pattern that I’ve incorporated into my normal routine.  Before writing anything new today, I read and rewrite what I wrote yesterday, correcting things I spot.  I get fewer new words each, but the words I keep in the manuscript document seem to be better ones.  
I finally submitted the story on 1/14/14.  It was rejected, though very nicely.   They said it was very well done, but just not suited for them.  A personal email, not a form letter.  I submitted it to an online magazine.  It was rejected again on 1/29/14.  Up until now I’ve never had a story published that wasn’t accepted by the first magazine I sent it to.  
But I still had hope.  When I finished the story I thought it read like an Analog story, but I already had stories under consideration with them.  I sent Robot Boss elsewhere, thinking that I needed to spread my submissions around to markets not considering my work.  By the time I got the second rejection, Analog had rejected the story I had sent to them.  So, now feeling free to do so, I sent it off.
It sold.  I don’t know what issue it’ll appear in.  Given the pattern, I’m guessing the September 2015 issue, but I hope it’s sooner than that. 
Like Random Access and Shadow Angel, I knew when I had a story instead of just an idea with Robot Boss.  I also knew how it needed to be told, enough to tell when it just wasn’t working right.  I tried a lot of different formatting methods until I used the Fairy Tale retelling to spot the problem.  
Like Shadow Angel, I started writing Robot Boss in October.  I can’t remember when I wrote Random Access, but I do remember it was after the Christmas holiday, so it isn’t in keeping with that pattern.  
So...  What have I learned about writing one story more easily?  
I have to know when it’s a story.  
I have to know how the story needs to be told. 
I have to finish my version of the Snowflake Method before putting down words for the manuscript.  
And, I might have to wait until October to start writing stories, and then wait until September for them to be published.  
Do you notice anything else?   


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