December 28, 2014

WRITING ADVICE: What Went RIGHT with “A Pig Tale” (ANALOG October 2004), Guy Stewart #11

In September of 2007, I started this blog with a bit of writing advice. A little over a year later, I discovered how little I knew about writing after hearing children’s writer, Lin Oliver speak at a convention hosted by the Minnesota Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Since then, I have shared (with their permission) and applied the writing wisdom of Lin Oliver, Jack McDevitt, Nathan Bransford, Mike Duran, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, SL Veihl, Bruce Bethke, and Julie Czerneda. Together they write in genres broad and deep, and have acted as agents, editors, publishers, columnists, and teachers.

While I don’t write full-time, nor do I make enough money with my writing to live off of it...neither do all of the professional writers above...someone pays for and publishes ten percent of what I write. When I started this blog, that was NOT true, so I may have reached a point where my own advice is reasonably good. We shall see! Hemingway’s quote to the left will now remain unchanged as I work to increase my writing output and sales! As always, your comments are welcome!

I consider “A Pig Tale” my first real sale to ANALOG. The first was a short piece for a regular section of the magazine called PROBABILITY ZERO, but this time I’d sold a real-live short story.

Probably the “most” right thing I did with this one is that I wrote about something I knew well: farms.

The family had spent an entire summer in the country, and while we were city-folk born and bred, we wanted desperately to do something different. A friend of my brother-in-law owned two farms. One he worked, the other was the farm started by his family. An encounter I can easily describe as a divine appointment, introduced us to the wife of a farmer who was intent on becoming an organic dairy farmer at a time when normal people had no idea WHAT that meant. We certainly didn’t.

We hit it off with the other family, who had three kids older than ours, and we learned LOTS that summer about what it meant to be organic farmers – and doing homeschooling as well. (Like I said, it was an illuminating summer!) We got to know them and their world a bit, so I used the background in this story.

The idea itself came from long discussions about my wife’s parents. He father had passed away a few years earlier and her mother was recovering from treatment for lung cancer. Other people we knew had parents suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia, so that was a topic for discussion on a regular basis.

It was also clear to me as a science teacher, that brain research into the causes and treatments for Alzheimer’s was gearing up to a frenzy as Americans were aging.

It was only natural to merge these elements into a story that a reviewer at Tangent Online thought was the best of the issue even though it was unusually dark for ANALOG, right?

What, it’s not as clear to you as it is to me?

At its heart, it was a family story; a brutal intersection of an important discovery of a method for treating Alzheimer’s with a woman in the throes of a divorce she felt she caused, and her father’s despair over losing the family farm. Oh, toss in a side order of misusing an experimental medication for personal reasons.

I understood the family interactions – everyone has them. The first line of Tolstoy’s ANNA KARENINA is “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Science fiction and families has a long history, so this wasn’t an unusual story. More people than I want to count have experienced a divorce; and after living in the country for a summer among people whose families had been planted in their homes in a long-past century; it wasn’t difficult to imagine how they would feel if they were being forced to leave.

As well, science fiction has been generously described as the “literature of ideas” as well as an exploration of how humans interact with future scientific and technological developments. All of the best and worst science fiction – both written and on the screens – does this. “2001: A Space Odyssey” (Rolling Stone poll) depicts how humans might interact with artificial intelligence; “Metropolis” (Rotten Tomatoes) does the same thing.

That’s what I did right in this story. In fact, I nailed every one of the tropes with “A Pig Tale”.

Now all I have to do is repeat the performance, and I can start selling MORE than ten percent of my stories!

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