Archive for March 6th, 2018
Note: My novella “The Proving Ground,” which was first published in the January/February 2017 issue of Analog, is being reprinted this month in Lightspeed Magazine. It will also be appearing in the upcoming edition of The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois, and is a finalist for the Analytical Laboratory award for Best Novella. This post on the story’s conception and writing originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on January 10, 2017.
Usually, whenever I start working on a story, I try to begin with as few preconceptions about it as possible. Years ago, in a post called “The Anthropic Principle of Fiction,” I made the argument that the biggest, most obvious elements of the narrative—the setting, the characters, the theme—should be among the last things that the writer figures out, and that the overall components should all be chosen with an eye to enabling a pivotal revelation toward the end. This isn’t true of all plots, of course, but for the sort of scientific puzzle stories in which I’ve come to specialize, it’s all but essential. Mystery writers grasp this intuitively, but it can be harder to accept in science fiction, perhaps because we’ve been trained to think in terms of worldbuilding from an initial premise, rather than reasoning backward from the final result. But both are equally legitimate approaches, if followed with sufficient logic and imagination. As I wrote in my first treatment of the subject:
Readers will happily accept almost any premise when it’s introduced in the first few pages, but as the story continues, they’ll grow increasingly skeptical of any plot element that doesn’t seem to follow from that initial set of rules—so you’d better make sure that the world in which the story takes place has been fine-tuned to allow whatever implausibilities you later decide to include.Which led me to formulate a general rule: The largest elements of the story should be determined by its least plausible details.
I still believe this. For “The Proving Ground,” however, I broke that rule, along with an even more important one: it’s the first and only story that I’ve ever written around an explicit political theme. Any discussion of this novella, then, has to begin with the disclaimer that I don’t recommend writing this way—and if the result works at all, it’s because of good luck and more work than I ever hope to invest in a short story again. (I write most of my stories in about two weeks, but “The Proving Ground” took twice that long.) Fortunately, it came out of a confluence of factors that seem unlikely to repeat themselves. A friend of mine was hoping to write a series of freelance editorials about climate change, and she asked me to come on board as a kind of unofficial consultant. She began by giving me a reading list, and I spent about a month working my way through such books as The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, Windfall by McKenzie Funk, and Don’t Even Think About It by George Marshall. Ultimately, we didn’t end up working together, mostly because we each got distracted by other projects. But it allowed me to think at length about what I still believe is the central issue of our time, and even though I didn’t come away with any clear answers, it provided me with plenty of story material. Climate change has been a favorite subject of science fiction for decades, but the result tends to take place after sea levels have already risen, and I wanted to write something that was in my wheelhouse—a story set in the present or near future that tackled the theme using the tools of suspense.
Alec Nevala-Lee and The Proving Ground
text by Juliette Wade who wrote a blog about this novel and here is the link:
Alec told us that in the midst of his writing process, he realized the story would be an homage to Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. This came about because of a scientific twist that he discovered while pulling together information on seasteading, including a long report by Peter Thiel which included technology and risk assessments of various sorts.
I asked Alec to tell us more about his process. He says he asks, "What's a good story?" He does lots of research and then looks for plot. He likes near-future scenarios. In this case he was looking at engineering proposals to combat climate change, specifically iron fertilization, which encourages the growth of plankton which consume carbon dioxide, but which doesn't necessarily encourage "good" plankton. Some plankton give off poisonous substances which can cause birds to go crazy. He found out about a historical incident in the 1960's when sea birds attacked, and that gave him an organic, plausible way to have a bird attack on a Marshall Islands seastead. At that point he realized, "This is the story."
I asked him if there was any connection here to his novel work. Alec has written three thrillers, and says he loves suspense, particularly the way he must try to keep people turning pages, and create puzzles for readers to solve. He says suspense is a great way of delivering ideas.
Alec describes himself as approaching worldbuilding from the opposite direction. Whereas most people look for a story that works within a background, he looks for a story plot with a twist, and then asks, "what is the setting where the plot makes the most sense?" He prefers a setting in which the implausible becomes inevitable. He finds it much harder to construct stories where the setting comes first. The core idea sets the constraints. He once had a story that he initially set in Greenland, but then he ended up moving it to Vietnam because it was a better fit.
He told us about a medical mystery story he wrote in which the remains of a saint caused people to catch a disease that seemed to cause miraculous healing. He learned about the story of Saint John of the Cross and decided it had to be in Spain, then decided it couldn't be in the present day because of access to medical technology. He therefore set it at a time when access to medical treatment was limited, and chose the Spanish civil war. In the end, a parallel to Hemingway came in... but that was the last thing to join the story.
"You can be forced backwards into what seems like the story's most obvious feature."
Similarly, Alec said he didn't know until quite late in his process that The Proving Ground would become an homage to Hitchcock.
Sometimes you take weeks, months, or years of ideas and arrange them into a sequence on the page, and you can make it look like you had the ending in mind.
Alec specializes in puzzle narratives. He says they force him to explore ideas that he wasn't planning to explore. He appreciates the opportunity to learn about different things because the story "told me to go there."
He has a story coming out soon in Analog. This happens to be another one that started with setting. He found a book in a thrift store called Alaska Bush Pilots in the Float Country, published in 1969. He held onto it for one year, fascinated by the risks and problems the pilots faced, as well as the setting and the pilots' profession. Then he found a second thread in the stories of Charles Fort about unexplained phenomena. Alec says he's a big X-files fan, and so he combined the two into a piece about a bush pilot hero in Alaska and a ghost city that appears like a mirage over a mountain range.
Alec is constantly on the look out for articles, connections, and places to start.
I asked him what kind of tool set he used for putting setting on the page. He told me he likes exploring the settings, sifting through research for images and details depending on what is available. "It's easier to work with what you have."
In his story process, the twist is really important. He often aims to do what he calls X-files in reverse, where he enters in with an event that looks paranormal, but then ends up being rational and scientific. The mechanism is concealed, so the story will appear sometimes to be horror or fantasy, but science lies at its core. His rule is that whatever gets revealed must be as interesting as the paranormal explanation. He doesn't want the science to be mundane.
I asked Alec about how he goes about concealing things without annoying his readers. He told me he generally uses one point of view character to limit the available information. He then puts the puzzle together by placing pieces in careful order. He wants the last piece to appear as close to the end as possible. He describes these as "mystery writer tactics."
Alec says science fiction is a fun genre to work in because weird stuff happens in it all the time, so it's much easier to convince readers that there's a monster, or that something paranormal is going on. He once wrote a Japanese-style horror story about a river creature, and enjoyed then surprising readers with a scientific explanation.
In this way he makes the natural expectations of genre work for him. However, and he stresses this, the scientific explanation must always be more interesting!
Alec is very organized about his writing process. He says there's probably a limit to the kinds of stories you can tell with this specific technique. He's intrigued by challenging ideas but if he feels "I have to write this" he gets a bit concerned because he might not be able to be objective, or because he feels there's a risk that he won't be able to write it.
Right now, Alec is working on a nonfiction project about the history of science fiction. It sounds really interesting.
Thank you, Alec, for joining us on the show and talking to us about your process! Today's hangout happens in half an hour, and we'll be talking with guest author Anne Leonard. I hope to see many people there.