Ideas and Execution in Storytelling

I am reading Andy Weir’s new novel, Project Hail Mary, and enjoying it quite a bit. It is the first science fiction novel I’ve read in a while. As I started it, however, something seemed vaguely familiar about it. If you are not familiar with the book, here is part of the publisher’s description:

Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission—and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish. Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it. All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very, very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company. His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, Ryland realizes that an impossible task now confronts him.

I seemed to recall once writing a story years ago about a person waking up from suspended animation to find the rest of her crew dead on their star ship. I wasn’t certain, but I thought I had. It certainly sounded familiar.

I have often wondered if long-time actors completely forget about a role they’ve played. Stephen King has written that he doesn’t remember writing much of Cujo, I believe. So it is not unheard of to forget, I supposed. Despite all of my efforts at record-keeping, I was never great at keeping a list of stories I’d written. So yesterday, I went on a digital search to see if I had, in fact, written a story with a similar opening to that of Project Hail Mary. I turned out that I had.

The story, called “Wake Me When We Get There” was written sometime in late 2004. Here is the opening of the story:

Day 3. I have decided to write these notes as a way of facing this situation rationally and avoid the panic that crept upon me as I came out of the Sleep. It’s the training: in an emergency, take stock; thus these notes. Here is the situation, as I understand it:

1. I came out of the Sleep two days ago.

2. My sleep tank has malfunctioned and I have been unable to get it to work thus far.

3. The other sleep tanks appear to be functioning normally and the crew’s vital signs are stable.

4. The ship is still ninety days from earth, still traveling at 99.9% light speed.

As you can see, my memory was not perfect. In my story, the rest of the crew is still asleep, not dead. But I remember the conundrum now. My main character can’t wake them without risking their lives since if she wakes them, she may not be able to get them back to sleep.

This is a great example of the problem many writers face. Very few story ideas are unique. What matter in these cases are execution. Weir’s story reminded me of my story in the similarities of their opening–astronaut wakes from sleep far from Earth and can’t get home–but Weir’s all around execution is far better than mine was. He pulls off his story with verve, while mine has many amateur elements about it. (This story was written over 2 year before I made my first professional sale.)

Indeed, it was this story that Sheila Williams at ASIMOV’S rejected in 2005 by pointing out how Allen Steele had pulled the idea off to much better effect in one of his stories. So apparently, I was a newcomer to an old idea, and Andy Weir is an even newer-comer to the same old idea. Allen and Andy could make the idea work and I couldn’t. Some might be bitter about this, but I am glad that they made the idea work because it makes for great reading.

And besides, there are always plenty of other old ideas to try out.

About Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

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