The Story Behind the Stories
The Sound of Distant Thunder by Mike Barretta
A Story's Life
I remember watching a PBS series called Frontier House in which families rich enough to
suspend their lives for months rolled back the clock and lived as pioneers in the American
Midwest. The only concession to modernity was a video camera to document the horrors of
wiping one's behind with a pine cone. I didn't want to tell a frontier story. I get that life on the
frontier was hard and pine cones hurt. I wanted to discuss the journey before the journey. What I
surmised from the show was that pioneers were not desperate hard-scrabble poor, permanently
anchored to the land, but people of modest means yearning for better. Families spent their life
savings on covered wagons and supplies and traveled across incredibly hostile terrain. They
risked it all. Here, I thought, were the perfect space travelers. They were tough and naïve in
ways that the affluent and settled can barely conceive. I wanted a character like that, someone
who could have stayed and done well but decided to risk it all for something far greater. I chose
to begin my character's journey in Africa as it seemed appropriately epic to begin a star traveler's
quest at the birthplace of humanity. Armed with enough knowledge about Africa to be pilloried
by world scifi fans for willfully appropriating continents and cultures, I put pen to paper under
the title Diallo's Story.
My futures are big and I don't owe any concessions to reality, nor do I feel the need for
engineering, political, social, or cultural accuracy. When I start to write, I write to impress only
one person, myself, and to be frank, I am pretty good at it. Why put 500 pounds into orbit when
you can put 50,000. The extra typing costs little. It isn't as if I am paying for the fuel. With a
stroke of pen I transplant entire cities and cultures where I need them to be. Only a fool would
construe anything I write as a historical document. Fiction needs only to be believable, not
factual. Hey, if you can do both more power to you. With me orchestrating Diallo's world he is
in for it. The Odyssey would be a walk in the park in comparison. Odysseus didn't have to
contend with real threats like sentient chimps and killer robots, just made up stuff like vengeful
gods and monsters.
The story begins at the beginning and this title sucked. In one scene Diallo hears a rocket taking
off and the sound rolls across him like thunder. I google my prospective title. The first hit is A
Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury. I love that story. I knew it sounded familiar. But my
notional title is "The Sound of Distant Thunder, something altogether different. Hopefully no
one will confuse me with Ray Bradbury. The second search finds, The Sound of Distant
Thunder, by Jack Pyle. I resolve to try again, but then I found an article by Cory Doctorow that
gives me license to use whatever title I want even if someone else used it first. I agree and start
writing. The story comes together quickly and I leave it in the computer to ferment for a bit.
Next time I see it depression set in. Someone had replaced my story with 10,000 words of pure
crap. The, oh so cool, giant, cargo dirigibles were limp gas bags, dead tech, that fascinates so
many, but just can't fly in the real world. The story's premise seemed obvious and pointless. I
was a fraud and should stick to what I do best which his fly little helicopters around the sky.
Why can't I focus? If I could just focus, I would be a millionaire. Instead, I am diverted by the
bright rising light of a rocket climbing out of the atmosphere, how butterfly wings make color
with geometry, and the terror of the little door in the back of the closet. I am the fool in the
garage cobbling together a flying car with lawn mower parts when I should be changing the oil in
the one that gets me to work every day. I have responsibilities and I need my sleep. But, I persist.
I start with the adverbs. I search for "ly." How many can there be? I consciously avoid them
when creating my first draft. My computer apparently has other designs. While the story rested
in the magnetic grooves of my hard drive adverbs have reached biblical plague proportions.
Maybe they are little hermaphroditic self-multipliers. My conservative estimation is that every
other word is an adverb and it is jammed up inside a passive sentence. I start pulling at this
bitter, low, hanging fruit.
Why do I hate adverbs? I don't know. They were fine until I discovered that most every writer
hate adverbs. Stephen King hates adverbs, therefore I hate adverbs. It is an acquired hate. So I
delete and rewrite and the story slims down. I worry that the enthusiasm that I captured in the
beginning will vanish so I save this story with the tag version 2.0. The original is safe. I'll
probably never look at it again unless my fans demand a director's cut. I save story versions like
a mad scientist saves amber jars of floating mutated babies.
After hours of adverb crushing, I walk away to clear my mind of Diallo. Something else catches
my attention. An article in Wired about hydrogen sulfide as a means of slowing down the
metabolism. Fascinating. The secret to interstellar travel is rotten egg gas and cryogenics. I
sketch a story in my mind about an impossible deep space rescue. How many tinfoil wrapped
people will fit in a fuel tank? Idiot, I think. It depends on the size of the fuel tank. Tough
decisions need to be made -- not by me, but by the half-formed characters populating my head-story. Maybe I'll try a lesbian character. I don't know anything about lesbians though. I'll have
to check Wikipedia.
After Wired, I peruse my usual hunting grounds, a smorgasbord of completely unrelated web
magazines and blogs. I check out SFsignal, IO9, Gizmodo, Foreign Policy, CNN, Defense
Weekly, Space, Nature, Discover, Ralans, Boing Boing, Whatever. Etc. What can I say? I'm
eclectic. I follow the links to wherever they take me until I hit Nazis. Then I stop. When you've
dug deep enough through the internet layers to hit Nazis you've gone too far.
I see that Nancy Fulda's Anthology Builder site has a contest. Just select a picture from her
archive of covers and write a story that refers to the cover. Sounds like a slam dunk. I have the
winning story in my files; I just have to pattern match it with a cover. Luckily, she has a picture
of a fairy, or at least a winged woman, fairyish anyway, and just so happens that the one fantasy
story I have ever written has a fairy in it. Lucky? I think not, more like divine providence. I
submit, having already spent the prize money on car insurance.
Weeks later I get a response from Nancy. Third place. I'm in a mood. Clearly the world is not
ready for my genius. I read the winners and concede that it is possible that their stories had less
adverbs than mine. Seems a long shot that she found two of them, but there it is. As third place
winner I get to create my own anthology from the selection of stories on her site. I get to pick my
cover and name my anthology. I called it "Lessons Learned." Pretty cool. When John Joseph
Adams or Gardner Dozois see what I have wrought they will go into voluntary retirement. My
other prize is a personalized critique from Nancy. This is what really interests me. Writing for
most is binary. You write, you send it in, you get a yes or no and you never know why. If you
get the yes, you start to think that you've arrived. If you get the no, it's because you weren't
"right." Of course I'm not "right" that's why I write. In any case, personalized criticism is pretty
sparse. I wait for my critique and then forget about it.
Time passes and Nancy reminds me that she owes me. So I ask her if she would critique a story
other than the one I submitted to the contest. She agrees and I send her a word file of "The
Sound of Distant Thunder." A few days later I get back three pages of professional criticism
from a fellow writer. Not what I was looking for. What I wanted was enthusiastic enthusiasm,
which is enthusiasm squared. Sure, she could have pointed out the inevitable typo or two, but
instead she opined about theme and structure and character development. I attach her comments
to version 2.0 of the story for some future historian to note just how wrong she was and close out
Diallo haunts me. Later, much later, I resurrect the story and read Nancy's comments. I
grudgingly concede she might have something. I make a few half-hearted changes that are akin
to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic and post it on Baen's bar. I will give the world a
second chance at the story. The bar is not a publishing forum it is a place for fans to aggregate
and comment on the fantastical. It's nice to have others read your work. There is the potential
audience of thousands on the bar so they can crowd source the story to perfection. Maybe there
is some literary agent trolling for world class talent and I will be discovered.
I post and wait. I check the post every fifteen minutes or so for comments. Nothing. I fall
asleep. The next morning I get a response from Edith Maor. I don't know her personally other
than her profile picture and that she is from Israel. I think she is the gatekeeper. I think if you
impress Edith you get to level up to Sam Hidaka who will reward your efforts with an RTF
request. Edith does not seem impressed, a few lines of this works, that doesn't, typos here, typos
there. A few other regulars pile on with broad-based comments. My comment tally is in the
single digits. There has to be a flaw in the system. Some writers get triple digit numbers. I don't
visit the bar enough to be inside the circle of trust. My story falls off the page. No RTF request
I listen to the news. The Iranian president says that there is no homosexuality in Iran. What?
How can the Iranians know that? Did they take a survey or something? Perhaps they know it the
same way they know that sex outside of marriage causes earthquakes. It sort of explains
California. I dump that tidbit of info on the brain bin marked: Iranian sexuality. Next to it is a
file of Fatwa approved sex change operations. Who would have thought? I bet there is a story in
their somewhere. I mean the Indians and Chinese have skewed their naturally occurring
demographics that the male-female ratio is so off-kilter that the market for women is going to
skyrocket. I sketch out an idea for a society that manufactures women, change my mind, and
decide on a society that does without them altogether. The father of all dystopias? I get tired and
then turn to internet to pretend I am doing something creative.
I drive to work and as I crest the bridge over the bay, the peninsular salt marsh comes into view.
In the early morning light it looks like an African savannah with plains of brittle gold grass
punctuated by copses of slender trees. A pride of African lions would not be out of place. No, a
pride of tyrannosaurs would not be out of place. Splayed before them are the bloody bones of a
sauropod. Twin tracks, the historical remains of some treaded or wheeled vehicle slice a
diagonal track across the marsh to where the dinosaurs of my imagination lay. I wonder what
happened to the occupants of that car. Tyrannosaurs, after all, are very territorial. I wonder if I
can maintain the idea until I can get it on a sticky note at work.
At home, I read. Nancy Fulda has been nominated for a Nebula. I click through, find the story,
and read it. It is good and it makes me feel bad. I first came across Nancy in the pages of thenow defunct Jim Baen's Universe. They selected one of her stories and later selected one of my
own. Fueled by overwhelming jealousy I send her a congratulations. I read her story again with
a critical eye to divine its secrets and then I revisit my arch-nemisis Diallo and take a good hard
look at what Nancy had said about the story. How could a Nebula nominee be so wrong. I patch
a few plot holes, change a few thees to thous, and resolve to find a home for the story. What can
I say -- I am happy with it. I search Ralans and think that Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic
Medicine Show seems like a good fit, so I submit.
I forgot I submitted. I used to keep a spreadsheet of my submissions, but documenting rejections
seemed like an exercise in masochism so I stopped. I get an email from Mr. Edmund Schubert,
editor at IGMS, and he apologized for not getting back to me sooner. All things considered, that
is a good letter to get from an editor. Better than the last one he sent me for sure. He says he
likes my story, but it has problems he would like to address. Would I be interested in perhaps
rewriting? He says that if I like the story the way it is then he wishes me luck. I check my
curriculum vitae. My last publishing credit has receded into the spongy recesses of time. My
ego needs a win. I agree and establish a deadline of two weeks. He responds that time is less
important than doing it right. Sounds ominous. He has given me a few clues as to what "right"
is but still, the burden of making it "right" falls to me.
I review Nancy's criticism of the story. She and Mr. Schubert must have had the same parents
because they think alike. If I had listened to her first I would not have this kind of pressure. I
reread the story. Diallo's life is too easy. The deeds in the story don't match the message. The
disconnect is so fundamental it should have been as obvious as a kitchen sink full of rattlesnakes.
I formulate a plan. I'll dicker a little bit here and a little bit there.
The story is a mess. Entire paragraphs vanish like lost continents. Characters evaporate like old-timey phaser hits. It's an authorial apocalypse. But what choice is there? Publish or perish.
Second chances, editorial direction, lightning striking twice, true love. These things just don't
happen to often and to disregard them is to disrespect them. The latest version is 9.0 but that is a
lie. If every time I made a change and changed the version number, it would be more like
I freeze the design in place. No more changes. I've read the latest version so many times I can
recite it backwards. Diallo, if I ever meet him, will get a punch in the face for putting me
through this. My wife comes into the study and asks if I am coming to bed. I raise my eyebrows.
She shakes her head. Her purposes are entirely selfish. From the day we were married, I have
been used to regulate her body heat. When she is cold she wraps around me and stuffs freezing
appendages in places that should not host freezing appendages. When she is sufficiently warmed
I am cast off to my allotted six inches of mattress on the king size. In a minute, I respond. In a
minute turns to two hours. Every time I reread the story I find a missing apostrophe, an inelegant
turn of the phrase, or an adverb. Where do they come from?
I submit to Mr. Schubert's double secret personal email, the one that does an end run around the
legions of slush readers. The next day he says, I got it. Ping me on the eighteenth if you haven't
heard back from me. What? I thought he would have read the story upon receipt and emailed a
contract at double the going rate. Thanksgiving passes. My pride folds like origami and I send
an inquiry so polite that the cordiality can be squeezed out and bottled as a cure for road rage. I
I am driving home from work, just past the tyrannosaurs, when my phone pings indicating an
email has arrived. I glance quickly at the originator and it is Mr. Schubert. I pull over to read it.
He says he likes the rewrite and would like to address a few minor concerns, and then publish it
around July of 2014. He says that payment is upon publication and if I would like, he will send
out a blank contract so I can see what I am getting myself into. As long as I keep the rights to the
movies and action figures, I'll sign. I'm not stupid.
Acceptance. Feels good, but it opens up another set of worries. What if Lois Tilton reviews it
and writes, "meh, not recommended" at the bottom of her critique? What if Requires-Only-That-You-Hate puts out a special post that calls me a patriarchal, culture-appropriating, overly-privileged, cis-gendered, neckbeard? I mean, I am, in a nice sort of way, but it would still suck.
But what if they don't, or better yet, who cares if they do? Screw it. Writing is the thing. I can't
make everyone happy. Sometimes I can't even make me happy. Diallo is on a mission. He is
going to Eridani, or Tau Ceti, or the place with just numbers to describe it. It takes a long time to
get to those places and he'll spend most of the transit sound asleep in a cold box that smells like
rotten eggs. He'll have adventures when he arrives, maybe I'll get to them, but in the meantime,
he has a sister, Abeni, who by all accounts, is little bit smarter and a little bit braver than he is.
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