Standard disclaimer: This post looks at the text of a short story for educational purposes, and does not shy away from spoilers. If you don’t want the story spoiled, read the original story first. (And subscribe to support the magazine.)
There are stories that I read and think “what the hell was that?” And then I ask “what made this story so good that John Joseph Adams bought it?” This site is an attempt to answer that question, which comes up for me quite often with most magazines.
I am hampered slightly by my general non-interest in military SF and more so by my lack of exposure to modern FPS franchises. I still think Quake 2 is the last FPS I played regularly, aside from a few death matches in Sauerbraten
over the years. I just don’t play those games often enough, so I didn’t read this an homage to the game nor an experiment, nor as the author apparently intended: to write from the Stockholm Syndrome AI that follows players around in these games.
I was expecting a variation on Dread Pirate Roberts (this makes two posts in a row where I refer to that masterpiece of popular fiction) about halfway through the story. I was still expecting a story, possibly a coming of age story or–frankly–anything resembling a story. Instead I read a piece that seemed to be going somewhere and then derailed at the end, but not in a way that made me feel like there was a general comment on war being absurd, which is the main theme in M*A*S*H. I felt like I was dropped into some absurdist piece of writing, or a military SF version of magic realism.
Lesson: Be Specific and Opinionated
The lessons I can pull from this story are those highlighted in Sandra Odell’s interview with Larson. The specific descriptions add reality to the story. Who hasn’t taken a “big old nervous shit” at some point in their life? We hardly ever write about using the bathroom. Because using the bathroom is so common, very few people in stories ever use one. It’s an assumed action, unless there is a joke to be made. (In Revenge of the Nerds, Ogre takes a piss that lasts three or four minutes. The jocks pause every once in a while to see if he’s done yet.) As George Carlin noted, anything everyone does but no one talks about is funny. Funny can add a sense of realism to a story. Humor is often used to separate man from android. (I’m looking at you, Data.) Sometimes a good chuckle out of the reader helps the reader buy in to the story. I have admit the big old nervous shit did that for me. Too bad buy-in isn’t needed in this story.
Every description should be specific enough to make the story real, and that’s a challenge with so many cliches floating around in our heads. In my case, there’s a challenge just in avoiding great descriptions I picked up from Douglas Adams or Raymond Chandler. I think the trick to getting solid descriptions that matter is to get into the character’s heads. This can be tough with minor characters, unless you as a writer have a great wit already.
A variation is to look for a biased way to describe things. This, too, requires understanding what each character loves and what they hate. If person A really hates person B, they are more likely going to describe B as “moving like they were going to stab somebody in the back” instead of “walking around the room smiling and getting smiled at”.
Scan your stories for the descriptions and punch them up a bit.
Lesson: Give Away the Game
After reading the author interview, it is clear that I missed the story even though there is a rather big clue:
“There’s going to be another generator,” he said. “There’s always another generator. Another checkpoint. Another op. It’s all a game. We’re just playing a game.”
This is exactly what the story is about, but as it’s military SF, soldiers in battle, soldiers who have seen a lot of death, then yeah, this idea of just playing a game fits the genre. I often find a conflict between what I want to say in a story and what the characters need to say in a story. If the theme of a story is a philosophical statement, then I as the writer get to have my say, but I have to have one of my characters say it. It also helps if it is a non-narrative character, I think.
Lesson: Secondary Character Narrators
The most famous is Dr. John Watson, of course. When the main character is mysterious, try a secondary character as the narrator. In my head this is more common with first person narration, but I have read third person work as well. This has the added advantage of making it possible to kill the Hero and be able to wrap up the story afterwards.
Exercise: Get into an easier head
Sometimes we have the right character as our protagonist, but something in the writing fails to click, or the voice sputters, or sometimes there is a failure to figure out the exact next thing that happens. Try telling that character’s story from someone else’s point of view.
This could also be handy in figuring out who your characters are. If you need practice with characterization, write about your main character from all the other character’s points of view, just after dealing the character or even before dealing with that character for the first time (if the protagonist has a reputation).