Damon Runyon and Me

This is another post about the short stories in Organisms, the collection of stories I contributed to the Bundoran Buddies Science Fiction StoryBundle. This time I’ll talk about “A Clean Sweep With All The Trimmings”.

There’s a backstory underlying “Clean Sweep” that I may turn into more stories someday, or even a novel. It starts from the idea that an alien race might make sophisticated servant androids that outlive the race itself. After all, it’s quite possible that humans could make intelligent machines that last a long time. If humanity itself then dies off (e.g. through a pandemic), the machines will still be programmed to act servants, even if they have no one to serve.

So I imagined a set of ageless “ideal servants” created by a long dead alien race and still roaming around the galaxy looking for masters. They can change their shape into anything that would make a master happy. Similarly, they change their personalities too. The changes happen automatically—the androids aren’t consciously aware of what they’re doing, they just change physically and mentally to be whatever their current master would find most suitable.

You might think that these androids would be general-purpose servants, able to do anything…but I thought it would be more fun if they specialized. Perhaps there’d be an Ideal Accountant, an Ideal Valet, an Ideal Secretary, etc. There’d also be an Ideal Sexual Partner, because of course there would.

This led to a question: “What would happen if this ideal found its way to Earth?” I could see people fighting to possess it, and the poor android forcibly kidnapped by a succession of ruthless owners. To make the conflicts more extreme, I envisioned it falling into the hands of a mobster. This would lead to a blood gang war as various gang leaders tried to grab the android for their own.

So my first attempt at the story was very Quentin Tarantino. It was pretty damned sordid, and it didn’t work. But it had one interesting trick—it was told from the viewpoint of the guy called in to clean up after all the bad stuff happened. This was basically the Harvey Keitel character from Pulp Fiction. He had a “big picture” view of the story which let him figure out what was going on.

As I said, the Tarantino version of the story didn’t work. But I thought the underlying set-up was good, and I liked telling the story from the viewpoint of a “cleaner”.

How could I tell a similar story without it being ick? Simple answer: Damon Runyon.

Runyon was a reporter who hung out with gangsters in the 1930s and 40s. His most famous work is Guys and Dolls, a collection of short stories that became the basis of the famous musical. Many of the folks Runyon wrote about were killers and very bad people…but his quirky writing style somehow made them seem charming rather than psychotic.

I love the way Runyon wrote, so I decided to steal it whole hog. I rewrote the story in Runyon’s tone of voice, and this time it worked really well: funny and sweet rather than mean and dark. As a result, “A Clean Sweep With All The Trimmings” is one of my favorite stories.

More About Organisms

Last week I wrote about “The Young Person’s Guide to the Organism”, a novella that appears in my contribution to the Bundoran Buddies Science Fiction StoryBundle. (By the way, that bundle is still available: $20 for a dozen amazing science fiction e-books!)

In this post, I’m going to talk about two more pieces I contributed to the bundle: a pair of stories I wrote on request for my long-time friend, Julie Czerneda.

Julie has edited/co-edited a number of great story anthologies. On several occasions, she ran into last-minute troubles when one of her planned contributors couldn’t deliver a story on time. Julie asked me if I could whip off stories to fill the gap…and since I love tight-deadline challenges, I said yes.

The first time was for an anthology called Mythspring. The idea for the book was that each story should be inspired by some actual piece of Canadian folklore: a legend or myth that would serve as the basis for the story. I said, “Okay,” and went to the library to search for reference material.

I came home with Colombo’s Book of Marvels by John Robert Colombo. Colombo is a long-time folklorist (as well as a poet and quotation collector), so I figured I could count on him to provide me with useful material.

I was right…but the book gave me far too much: dozens of interesting legends. How could I choose just one? Instead, I sort of chose them all. The result was a story called “All The Cool Monsters At Once” in which legendary monsters from all across Canada suddenly crawl out of lakes, emerge from the woods, or drop from the sky for reasons unknown. It turned into my own personal love story for Canada: the ending always brings a tear to my eye.

The second time Julie asked me to write a story on short notice, it was for an anthology called Space, Inc. The book dealt with what jobs would look like in the future—strange science fictional jobs. Since I was rushed for time, I couldn’t do a ton of inventive world-building, so writing a traditional story would have been difficult. Instead, I decided to write a bunch of snippets: vignettes showing a range of future jobs.

But there’s a problem with vignettes. Even if each of them is fine, they need to be tied together with an overall story arc or the reader won’t get a satisfying beginning, middle and end. How could I make such an arc? I started to think of how other writers had done it, and I immediately came up with Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino.

I love Invisible Cities. It’s full of mind-boggling ideas. It takes its style from Marco Polo’s original travel journals, wherein he described his journeys to and from China back in the thirteenth century. Polo wrote short descriptions of all the strange things he saw. Calvino uses the same technique, describing increasingly weird cities, and framing it all as conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. The frame tale gives the story its arc and holds everything together.

I shamelessly copied the format (just as Calvino had shamelessly copied Marco Polo). But just to jazz around a bit more, I based each of the vignettes on the Buddhist Eight-Fold Path. As one does. Hence was born “The Eight-Fold Career Path”, one of the oddest things I’ve ever written. (But someday I’ll talk about “Axial Axioms”, another thing I wrote for Julie on short notice. What if Lao Tsu invented complex numbers, Aesop invented combinatorics, the prophet Daniel invented trigonometry…)

Organisms

Just released: the Bundoran Buddies Science Fiction StoryBundle! This bundle of 12 ebooks contains work by such luminaries as Robert J. Sawyer, Madeline Ashby, Tanya Huff, and yours truly!

A bit of background: Bundoran Press is a science fiction publishing house run by my friend Hayden Trenholm. Hayden organized this bundle as a way to raise Bundoran’s public profile, as well as to provide an easy and affordable way for readers to buy a dozen great books.

My contribution to the bundle is a set of stories grouped under the title ORGANISMS. The central piece is a novella called “The Young Person’s Guide to the Organism”. It’s one of my favorite pieces of writing for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that it’s the first published League of Peoples story.

The subtitle of the novella is “Variations and Fugue on a Classical Theme”. So let me briefly get all artsy and explain what that means.

You might be aware of The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, a piece of music by Benjamin Britten. The piece introduces the various instruments of a symphony orchestra by presenting a theme and variations. First, the whole orchestra plays a melody by Henry Purcell (that’s the theme). Then the flute and piccolo play a variation of the theme; then the oboes play another variation; then the clarinets; and so on, through all the woodwinds, then the strings, then the brass, then percussion. The final section of the piece is a fugue which starts with the flute and piccolo again, then adds the oboes on top, then the clarinets on top of that, and so on until the whole orchestra is playing the fugue together…after which the brass section blasts out the original theme over top of everything else.

The piece itself is well worth listening to. There are several versions on YouTube, so if you’re interested, have a look.

What I did was write a novella with the same structure. The “theme” of my story is First Contact—a classic sf theme indeed. The plot begins with a gigantic alien organism entering our solar system and slowly proceeding toward the sun. Each section of the story is about someone’s experience of making contact with the organism, as told to a “young person”. (In many sections, a parent is telling one or more of their children about this amazing thing the parent saw.) The final part of the novella (the “fugue”) consists of brief snippets when all the “young people” have their own moments of first contact with the organism, eventually culminating in humanity making first contact with the League of Peoples.

So let’s just say that the story is structurally ambitious. It dates back to 1992 and I’m sure there are a ton of things I’d change if I ever decided to rewrite it…but I’m still quite fond of the story and am glad to see it get some new exposure.

And that’s just one of the stories in ORGANISMS, which is just one book in the bundle! Maybe in the next few days, I talk about more of the stories in the book.

Stabilization

Yesterday, I wrote about Destabilization: you can say that a story begins when one or more characters have their lives destabilized, and that the story ends when their lives are stable again. To add to this, let me talk about the forms that the final stability may take.

One possible type of stability is going back to the status quo that existed at the beginning of the story. You often see this in books for kids: all problems have been solved, all monsters are defeated, and everything is back to “normal”. This is fine for children—many kids haven’t learned to cope with change. Furthermore, it means the same story can be read multiple times, and a series of books can be read in any order.

But it doesn’t work well for adults. Adults know that things never stay the same, and they like to see people dealing with change. So even if a threat is defeated (or a puzzle is solved, or the protagonist manages to get home after a difficult journey), adults want to see characters develop. The experience should leave the characters stronger, or wiser, or more wary, or something. Otherwise, the whole experience meant nothing. (That’s perilously close to “It was all a dream”. Haha, everything was pointless!)

The newly established stability doesn’t have to be “nice”. If a character gives up hope, that’s still a form of stability. It may not be an enjoyable result, but it is an ending and may be suitable for some stories.

(You can get away with “downer” endings in short stories more than in novels. Consider horror stories, for example; plenty of them end with the protagonist dying in some gruesome way. However, ending a novel with everything awful may be too grim to satisfy readers who’ve spent hours of their lives on the book.)

Stability doesn’t mean that every loose end has been tied up. Stories that are part of a series almost always have loose ends; a dangling thread in Book 1 may start the plot in Book 2. But even stories that will never have a sequel may have loose ends. If so, I think it’s useful to acknowledge the loose ends in some way. Otherwise, readers may just think that the writer fumbled the ball. By acknowledging I mean something like, “George never did find out where the dagger came from,” or something like that. (Preferably something more elegantly phrased, but still.)

One way or another, a story begins when the first domino falls. At the end, readers should feel that there are no dominoes left, even if the dust hasn’t completely settled. If dominoes are still in motion, the story just isn’t over yet.

[Photo of dominoes by Peng [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

Destabilization

The latest episode of the Writing Excuses podcast dealt with how to finish a character’s story. During the discussion, they described good plot structure as circling back on itself. I understand what they meant, but I worry about the concept being misinterpreted; beginning writers may think that you have to end up at the same place you started, literally or metaphorically. Sometimes this does happen (as in the classic Hero’s Journey), but plenty of good stories don’t make this kind of circle. So let me put my own spin on the point.

Stories begin with some kind of destabilization. Something pushes or tempts one or more characters to break their routine. For example:

  • The characters leave home, temporarily or permanently
  • A new person enters the characters’ lives (often summarized as “A Stranger Comes to Town”)
  • The characters encounter a puzzle and decide to solve it (this is the plot of most mystery stories)
  • An event occurs which makes it difficult or impossible to continue with the status quo
  • Some incident, large or small, induces the characters to make changes in their lives

Now it’s possible for things to occur without destabilizing the characters’ lives. Lots of people go on trips without being changed, and a typical police detective solves plenty of “mysteries” without being strongly affected by them. A situation only becomes “story-worthy” when characters truly are destabilized.

(And let me say as an aside, new writers are sometimes reluctant to destabilize characters. Few of us like being destabilized ourselves, and if you identify with your characters, you may be inclined to keep your characters cool and unaffected by whatever happens. This is a mistake—characters should never skate through plot situations. Even James Bond has to sweat.)

So if a story starts with destabilization, how does it end? When the characters’ lives are more or less stable again. You don’t have to resolve everything—life is seldom so neat. And “stable” doesn’t have to mean “happy”; characters may end up dead or in terrible circumstances. (See, for example, the ending of Hamlet.) But an ending will feel like an ending if there’s nothing that’s going to propel much further change in the situation.

In other words, you can look at story structure as starting with a state of stability, then getting destabilized, and eventually returning to stability again. The final state may or may not be similar to the initial one; it could be wildly different. But if the final state feels stable, the audience will understand and accept that the story is over.

[Photo of Leaning Tower of Pisa by Saffron Blaze [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons]

What I’m Reading: December 7, 2018

I always have a number of books on the go for one reason or another. Why not share?

Fiction: At the moment, I’m reading superhero comic books (gee, I wonder why?) and I’m mostly making use of my Marvel Unlimited account. (It’s a bargain, providing access to almost all of Marvel’s backlist for only $69 (U.S.) a year!) Right now I’m working through November 2014, so that means the “Axis” and “Spider-Verse” events (among others).

Other comic series I follow devotedly: The Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen, The Wild Storm by Warren Ellis, and Giant Days by John Allison.

Bathroom reading: Beyond Weird by Philip Ball, a book on quantum theory whose aim is to get past the “Wow, isn’t this weird!” stage and to work on demystification…to the extent that quantum theory can be demystified.

Kitchen reading: I always have a book in my kitchen for when I take a snack break during writing, or when I’m waiting for water to boil, or for all those other times when I’m in the kitchen with a few minutes to fill. At the moment, I’m reading Plant Biology by Alison M. Smith et al, because I don’t know nearly enough about botany. (Everybody should ask themselves what they don’t know enough about and then start correcting that omission.)

Cheap Explosions! And Editing!

Woohoo! The Kindle version of All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault is on sale today at Amazon.

Update: It’s also on sale at Kobo. (Oops, sorry for missing that.)

And while I’m here, let me put in a plug for my editing services. If you’re a writer, new or established, I’d be happy to work with you to improve your latest manuscript. I can give you my overall thoughts on character, plot, structure, etc., or detailed notes on your complete novel. Give me a shout at j.a.gardner@outlook.com for more information.