Reverse engineering science fiction stories

I sometimes wonder, on the those rare instances when I am watching an actor watch a clip of a movie or TV show that they’ve been in, if the actor thinks of the show the same way we do. Are they sitting there thinking: this clip is the first scene in the movie, but the last scene we shot? Or: man, was I hung over when we shot this scene. Or: remember all the problems they had with the lighting? I don’t know why this fascinates me, but it does.

After I made my first few story sales, I was warned by several of my writer friends that my enjoyment of reading science fiction might diminish. I’m not sure why this would be so. Perhaps, in reading someone else’s story, I might think, man, how come this got published and my story didn’t? I’m really not sure. But in the years since I first started selling stories, my enjoyment for science fiction stories has increased.

But there is a caveat.

Before I sold any stories, before I took workshops or was a member of a writers group that critiqued fiction, I would read a science fiction story and my any thoughts it generated were always about the story: wow, that was a cool yarn! I wonder if beings like that could actually live on the surface of the sun? Is it really possible that dolphins can communicate with us? What would it be like to live on Trantor?

While I still have thoughts like these when I read stories, they tend to come after I’ve finished the story. These days, while I am reading the story, my thoughts tend to run to the construction of the story itself. Especially if I know the author, I might smile and think, “Oh, I totally see what Juliette is trying to do with this opening.” I might look at a story and wonder, “Was this opening scenes really the first scene that was written?” How did it all come together, I wonder? What was it like for the author getting up in the morning and sitting down to write this thing?

Part of my fascination probably comes from the fact that some authors have been very open about this process. In the first volume of Isaac Asimov’s autobiography, In Memory Yet Green, he writes about the day John Campbell asked him to write “Nightfall” and how it went home to write it that evening:

…I put a piece of paper in the typewriter, typed the title, which Campbell and I had agreed should be “Nightfall,” typed the Emerson quotation, and then began the story.

I remember that evening very well; my own room, just next to the living room, my desk facing the southern wall, with the bed behind me and to the right., the window on the other side of the bed looking out westward on Windsor Place, with the candy store across the street.

“Nightfall” of course became one of the most famous science fiction stories of all time, but its humble, mundane beginning fascinates me. I think in part it is because, as a writer, you always hope that you can achieve something of the same. Sitting in your own humble, mundane office, just you and your keyboard (or pen and paper) churning out words that perhaps you are somewhat uncertain of, a masterpiece of the genre might be in the works. Starting each new story is like a pitcher tossing out the first pitch of a baseball game. You start with a perfect game. How long can you keep it going before it’s a no-hitter; then a shutout, and then just an ordinary run-of-the-mill performance.

I think it is hard to say this for sure, as a writer. I have written stories which, after typing the final line, I’ve jumped out of my chair and fist-pumped, shouted out “yes!” But they’ve gone nowhere. I’ve written other stories which came out feeling like nothing special–and ended up selling at once. And it makes you wonder how much of that has gone into the stories you read every day.

I have been trying to read more stories by Robert Reed. Each story I’ve read by him seems remarkably good, but he is also so darn prolific that I wonder, during each reading, how he does it. How can you write so quickly and yet so well? The answer to some of this is native talent, and no amount of reverse engineering will yield that to someone without native talent. At least not for someone like me who needs to practice and practice and practice to improve my skills.

Sometimes while reading a story I’ll wonder what is missing. What scenes were taken out? Why? I know this must happen in many stories. In my own stories, I keep all of my deleted scenes–and often times there are many. I can’t be the only writer in the world who does this. What might “Nightfall” have looked like if any deleted scenes were left in? If alternate openings or endings were available to us to look at?

None of this is to say that I don’t enjoy the story. As I said, I feel like my enjoyment of science fiction stories has only increased since I’ve started writing them. But there is a new dimension that looms over my reading of them. I think that dimension adds something. It makes me, as a writer, think about how the story was constructed. It is my way of visualizing the author’s process without really knowing anything about it. I suppose the idea is that maybe I’ll learn something useful in the process of being entertained.

Well, I’m not going to complain about that!

8 thoughts on “Reverse engineering science fiction stories

  1. I have actually noticed that my reading enjoyment has been dramatically lessened. In the past, I was oblivious to what made a story good, or what the difference was between good and bad writing. I either liked a story, or I didn’t. This was a problem with my own writing as I had no idea how to write well. By learning more and improving, I have trained myself to look for problems. Now I can’t turn that part of my brain off. As a result I am far less forgiving of other authors making the mistakes I used to.

    It is also a bit like watching a magic show. It is fascinating until you learn how the trick is done, after that it is never so wonderful again.

  2. Michael, that occasionally creeps up in my reading. I might think: wow, how did the author get away with that? But it is pretty rare, and more often than not, it is in those old Golden Age stories (Ross Rocklynne is killing me this month!). I think there are 2 thinks that have raised my enjoyment: (1) the desire to learn while being entertained. I am now looking for “proven” examples of “how it’s done.” Kind of like watching major leaguers take batting practice and noting how they stand, how smooth their stance is. How they keep the bat flat as they try to pull a ball. Stuff like that. (2) I know a lot of the writers writing the stories and that makes them a little more special and adds to the enjoyment. Of course, related to #1 it also means that on occasion, I can actually say to the author, hey, that was some great stuff. What were you thinking there? How did you make that work?

  3. What might “Nightfall” have looked like if any deleted scenes were left in? If alternate openings or endings were available to us to look at?

    I think the “uncut” version of Stranger in a Strange Land is an insight to that process.

  4. Paul, enough said. 😉

    It was the uncut version of Stranger that I ended up reading (and not liking very much). At one point, I tried to compare it side-by-side with the original version to see what was taken out. It’s too late for me to say if I would have liked the original more. I did the same thing with Stephen King’s The Stand–read the uncut version. That I liked better than Stranger.

  5. I met Robert Reed once, at a Worldcon a while back, and I praised him for one of his stories – I think it was “First Tuesday” – because of the brilliance of his extrapolation, and how it made such a good story for teaching how to write SF to a class.

  6. Michael, it always amazes me how many people you know. I miss seeing you at conventions because there is no one who introduces me to as many people as you do. And they all have such nice things to say about you in return. I don’t know how you do it!

    The first thing I ever read by Robert Reed was “Marrow” and it was just incredible. I’ve read a few of his recent stories now, including his recent Asimov’s and Daily SF stories. I don’t know how the man does it.

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