When I sat down to write this post, it occurred to me that I’d written Faces of Gemini after I started blogging, so I went digging in my old Livejournal entries and found this:
Sept 16, 2003 … the current story, provisionally entitled “Shards.” It’s completed–the first draft was 3,400 words and now after a couple revisions it’s up to 51K. By the time I’ve fleshed out the setting and converted some of the dialogue to narrative (it’s a bit too talky) it’ll probably hit 6K.
Do I care how long it ends up being? No, not really. But I’m interested in the way that my last two drafts have been extremely spare, with much adding in subsequent drafts. It’s a technique I want to play with. Where’s the line between spare draft and ornate outline? Can I find it? Do I want to?
And then on September 29th – I got a story off to market today. It’s called “Faces of Gemini,” it’s 7K words long, and it was originally drafted only two and a half weeks ago.
What I remember about this story is that it was one of two that came up suddenly, under almost exactly the same circumstances. Emily Pohl-Weary was working on the book that became Girls Who Bite Back: Witches, Mutants, Slayers and Freaks, and she had heard that I was a feminist comics nerd (though she put it more tactfully than that) and asked if I wanted in.
I love writing for theme anthologies. For me, a bit of a restriction on what I can write poses a fundamentally sexy challenge. I start with ‘what would fit here?’ and usually slide pretty quickly into ‘what can I get away with?”*
The idea I came up with in this case was very much a prose version of a four-color hero team comic, your X-Men, Justice League of America type of book, one whose founders were falling apart. I remember outlining it in detail, really planning every little shift and revelation. Time was short, and I didn’t want to find myself wandering down any interesting ten thousand word side streets. The outline developed from a group of sticky notes on a wall into a series of twenty sentences, each of which laid out what I wanted to achieve. I then fleshed them out, in record time.
I did almost exactly the same thing with Origin of Species, but I haven’t pulled it off in quite the same way since, despite some attempts. The particular mixture: short deadline, limited space, specific antho requirements, had some kind of alchemical effect that hasn’t come together again. The crucible may have been stress: I wrote both stories at an emotionally challenging point in the life of me.
*Walter Jon Williams, I’ve heard, works from the proposition: What will everyone else do, and how can I go 180 degrees in the other direction?
“The Children of Port Allain” is the example I pull out when someone asks me where I get my ideas… because I happen to remember exactly.
The story is a distorted vision of life on the rainy, forestry-dependent West Coast of B.C., this place:
It was back in the days when I still followed current events, which would put it before 2001. I would usually have CBC Radio One on for an hour or two when I was cooking or playing Asheron’s Call, and in that time I might catch the local news twice, as well as a national or international broadcast.
On one such occasion, the B.C. news had two stories back to back. The first was about a Vancouver Island town whose core employer, a pulp mill, was closing down. The town council was, therefore, wooing a medicinal marijuana operation to come in and set up shop, the idea being that the government-anointed pot growers would replace the lost jobs.
The second story was about a newly paroled pedophile who was getting hounded from town to town. He’d settle somewhere, there’d be an outcry, and eventually he’d try somewhere else.
“Where should these people go?” the interviewer asked one of the most recent hounders in this story.
“What do we care as long as it’s not here?” was the reply.
What happened, naturally, was my writerbrain came up with a mashup: the same desperate pulp-mill town, working up a scheme to create jobs by becoming a haven for paroled child molesters.
“The Children of Port Allain” is a prickly, uncomfortable story. There’s no overt violence in it, but it’s unsavory by design: if it was something you found in the back of your fridge, you’d imagine you could still smell it weeks later, even after giving your kitchen a nice bleach flambe. It’s about how kids live where their parents do, whether it’s next to a toxin-emitting mill or a prison; it’s not a great conspiracy, just a fact of life. It’s about the idea one hears lofted, sometimes, that anything is okay as long as one’s creating jobs. It wasn’t much of a surprise, once it was written, to find I had a little trouble finding it a home. But then I found myself at Norwescon on a panel where someone asked where my inspiration came from. I told the above anecdote and my friend, Derryl Murphy, who happened to be in the audience, said I should send it to On Spec.
“It’s too long,” I replied automatically. (Their word limit, then as now, is 6000 words.)
“Tell ’em I said it was okay,” Derryl said, and the eventual result was that the story appeared in their Summer 2003 issue.
First, an exciting contest announcement: Favorite Thing Ever is giving away a copy of Indigo Springs. Entering is easy: surf here, leave a comment, and you’ll be in the running to win. No skill testing questions are involved.
Speaking of skill-testing, I am embarking on a new novel this morning.
I had been thinking to write a couple more squid stories, to go with the three already published and the two that are about to hit the market. However, after a couple of weeks of thrashing around the Battle of Las Vegas, I’ve conclusively determined that my head’s not currently in the Proxy War. So, as an experiment, I switched over to detailed planning on THE RAIN GARDEN, my next mystery project. Things clicked immediately. Presto, plotto, kazam!–I have an outline.
My plan as of two weeks ago had been to blast through a very rough draft of this book in November, as a Nanowrimo thing. Barring fire, flood and the common cold, I find that two thousand words a day for thirty days (less a couple days off) is a pretty sustainable pace for me. But since I’m ready now I’m darnwell gonna start now, keeping the end-of-November finish date but moving at more of a 900-word daily target. That will leave time for days off, a visit to Alberta, and Orycon.
I like the sustained push-push-focus of Nanowrimo, but it does tend to leave me bug-eyed and gibbering well into December. And there’s no reason to hold off if I’m ready to write the book now.
So, hey! What are all of you working on this autumn?
“What Song the Sirens Sang” was commissioned by Xtra West, Vancouver’s queer newspaper, a couple of years ago. The paper was doing a special issue on the future of the local community and the Davie Village, which is where most of the local bars, Little Sisters bookstore, and the paper itself are based. As they were planning, someone asked: what if we get an SF writer to do a story? So the paper’s editor, Robin Perelle, reached out, and we agreed I’d write them a piece.
During the time prior to all this, there had been a couple gatherings–birthday parties, mostly–where the idea of a small group of friends potlucking its way through a disaster had been bandied about. All in fun, you understand. Nobody took it seriously, nobody built a bunker or hoarded food or actually tried to plan. It was one of those in-jokes that come up: Muffy will figure out how to sterilize water, Buffy will run the goat farm, Tuffy will learn to make brick walls, and so on. For this story, I imagined a global-climate-change-meets-falling-human-fertility type of eco-disaster, and then elevated the Potluck of the Apocalypse from a joke into a necessity-mothered creation. In this story, the world we know lives on only in remnants, and one of those is this thriving community of tough old queers from my age cohort.
I further imagined that this queer community, despite the ongoing need to put survival first, would maintain some of our important cultural traditions, even as it continued to embrace people regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or genetic mutation.
When I write about activist communities, I tend to celebrate what I like best in them: the way people can act in solidarity, the way these actions sometimes bring victory. I skip the endless tedious meetings, the drama, the arguing over semantics, the people who threaten to quit whenever something doesn’t go their way, the exhaustion, the burnout, and the soul-crushing defeats. “What Song the Sirens Sang,” (much like my more recent story, “The Cage“) is a rose-colored view of a complex and often fractious group process. It is grassroots activism dressed in its holiday best. These stories are about the times when everyone shows up, pulls together, and where–collectively and as individuals–we really are the people we imagine ourselves to be.
This story’s comparatively recent, which means I remember quite a few of the initial sparks for “Five Good Things about Meghan Sheedy” when I wrote it in 2004.
First, I was developing the (loosely) standardized critique style that I now I use for most of my UCLA Extension Writers’ Program classes. I had settled on a ‘rule’ for myself that no matter where a student was at, craftwise, I would find at least five positive things to say about every story submitted for workshop. Five things. It’s arbitrary, I know, but it ensures that everyone gets a comparable amount of encouraging feedback, and that I’ve identified a few good things they can build on. When your students never see you face to face, when you’re just keystrokes on teh Internets, the being positive up front component of critique is even more important than when you’re in the room together.
As teaching discipline, it has worked out well, and I still do it with Creating Universes, Building Worlds, Writing the Fantastic, and most other classes. (Novel Writing II has been a different kettle of fish.)
So… five good things. The fact that it was a fixed number snagged on something in my writerbrain. It occurred to me that there could be aliens with whom something like this was an actual custom. A lot of cultural things are arbitrary in some way or another; the answer to “Why?” is often “That’s just how we do it.”
Another second component of the story was Meghan’s temper. I’d had the opportunity to closely observe someone who was going through some really difficult things, and went through a stage of dealing with it by biting off the heads of everyone within hearing range. I’m more of a conflict avoider, so it was on my mind.
As for how this evolved into a squid story… well. I had been reading a good deal about the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam in the Sixties, and thinking about proxy wars, and how it might look if two offworld powers started kicking Earth around in some fashion. I thought of setting it in the same universe as the Slow Invasion stories, further on down the timeline, but that Earth has a dense offworlder population that considers our mudball home, and those individuals wouldn’t go anywhere just because a war busted out, and I didn’t want them added into this particular stew. They didn’t quite fit. So, despite the fact that the two universes have similarities (offworlders who are far more advanced than us, exploiting their supremacy) I decided they couldn’t be lumped together.
Later, as I wrote more squid stories, especially the ones about Ruthless, it became apparent to me that “Meghan Sheedy” probably takes place late in the Proxy War–the U.S. is the last country of any significance to fall to the Fiends, who work their way from the Mexican border to Canada. (We fold like the paper kitten we are, maybe five minutes after they get here. Ten if they stop for coffee.) Since this story takes place in Seattle and Seattle’s near the border, the geography makes that much apparent. But those were decisions I made later; in the meantime, I was imagining the Seattle I know, the familiar skyline pocked with Dust craters while ordinary twenty-first century peeps tried to cope with bombing and the destruction of their way of life, with occupation and collaborators and the danger of constant surveillance by both sides.