September 15, 2013

WRITING ADVICE: Julie Czerneda’s Writing Workshop! #3 -- The Problem

In 2005, whilst perusing the shelves at the Hennepin County Public Library, I stumbled across CHANGING VISION by Julie Czerneda (say it: chur-nay-dah), an author I'd never heard of, and was intrigued by the aliens on the cover by artist Luis Royo. It didn’t matter that the book was the second in a series, the cover entranced me and so I read. The book was spectacular, I read others, and fell entirely in love with another series of hers called SPECIES IMPERATIVE for its fascinating aliens and superior characterization. A teacher deeply at heart, Julie Czerneda shares ideas and methodology wherever she goes. On her website, she shares ideas for writers. I want to share what kind of impact her ideas have had on my own writing.  They are used with the author’s permission.

“The Problem… is where you pick an imagined consequence to the ‘What if’ to explore. (Plus a good story needs something for characters to face.)”

In my June 2000 ANALOG story, “A Pig Tale” (You can read it for free here:, I asked, “What if a cure for Alzheimer’s was discovered and it acted by ‘re-wiring’ the brain?”

While I was tempted to show the effect this might have on the entire world, I knew I had come to loathe such world-spanning stories. I even had trouble reading one of my favorite author’s novel MOONFALL (Jack McDevitt) because it had an enormous cast of characters and covered the horrendous, pulse-pounding possibility of a comet striking the Moon and destroying all life on Earth...It was impossible for me to really get to know any single character.

Another one of my favorite authors manages other major events by focusing on one or two characters and viewing the horrendous, pulse-pounding possibility of – in this case – the invasion of another world. In BARRAYAR (Lois McMaster Bujold) views the war not from the front lines but on a sideline as the story plays out between two characters whose world might very well come to an end. I got to know the two of them and fell in love with both.

Of course, “A Pig Tale” was a short story. So, I shrank the scale, used a place I knew well, and a time only a few years from now. I chose a deeply important subject – Alzheimer’s – and then added another layer of intensity: an attempted suicide by my character’s father.

My main character Rachel (named after one of my nieces), is one of the researchers who discovers an effective treatment. But the success has come at a price. She is getting divorced and has returned to her rural roots to escape everything...

As she and the other researchers developed a protocol for the treatment, they discovered that the patient was very, very susceptible to suggestion. At its most effective, when recordings of memories told by a patient’s family are played during the treatment, the memory pathways leading to those memories are restored. Powerful, indeed.

 While she has brushed away concerns both the left and the right have raised about how the drug might be misused, she suddenly comes face-to-face with those concerns and the tale becomes one of the conflict between professional ethics and family. Tangent Online reviewed the issue of ANALOG and said of the story, “…Stewart tells a story of quiet desperation, of memory and betrayal and one woman’s attempt to change her life and the lives of those around her. Interesting and sobering, and as dark as it is, it’s my favorite short story this issue.”

Why did this strike such a note with this reviewer?

Because not only did I craft a story based on the clear consequences of the answer of a “what if”, I was able to make it personal.

While I didn’t discover Julie Czerneda for another five years, I can verify that her advice is sound and I was applying it even before that time.

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