The Story Behind the Stories
Failing Constructs by Alter Reiss
Sometimes I'll put a story together by combining images from various places; could be other
stories, or pictures I've seen, historical events, or cards from elaborate nerd games that I like
playing. Relatively few of those combinations produce anything worthwhile, and sometimes it
takes a lot of work before a story starts to come together from the parts.
"Failing Constructs" started with a corrupt official, a killer scarecrow, a modern racing
motorcycle, and a picture of a 19th century factory floor.
There were other elements that went into the initial mix, but those dropped out, or were changed
so thoroughly that they weren't really recognizable in the end--all that survived of the
motorcycle, for instance, was the way that my killer scarecrows had some plastic parts. Or at
least, that was the obvious connection. I also moved the setting to a more modern secondary
The most interesting question that I had gotten from those images was why the scarecrow wanted
to kill, and how that related to a corrupt official. Scarecrows tend to have relatively little interest
in good governance, one way or another, and relatively few of them deliberately kill anyone.
Since I'd started with a killer scarecrow, rather than a killer robot, I found myself thinking more
in terms of fantasy than science fiction. Also, killer robots suggest artificial intelligence, and the
reasons why AIs might want to kill people have been reasonably thoroughly explored; this was
coming at the problem from a different angle.
That's the advantage of starting with those images, rather than putting something together from
the ground up. While I do wind up moving things toward more recognizable patterns, something
carries through from the original images, which pulls those patterns out into something different.
But while those images help give form to the story, the actual story comes from somewhere
harder to describe. I generally spend a lot of time thinking about a story, writing notes and ideas
and plans before I actually start writing the story itself, and this one was no exception. At one
point, I was trying to make it into a sequel to "Recalled to Service," which was published by
tor.com, but I found myself being pulled in other directions.
One of the things that struck me was the contrast between the suggestion of farms and farmers in
scarecrows, and the deadly industrial machinery of the early industrial revolution. And as an
immigrant, there've been plenty of times where I've made poor choices because I didn't
understand the way things were usually done, what the choices I was making meant.
Also, once I decided that the scarecrow was something magical that was killing people because
of flaws in the way it was constructed, I wanted to put in other constructs that were falling
apart--or, more precisely, other constructs that had fallen apart, and the consequences of those
failures. Governments and marriages aren't magical, at least not in the usual use of the term. But
they are things which are constructed, and they are things whose collapses change everything,
though the scales are very different.
In a sense, "Failed Constructs" started with a random selection of story building blocks. But even
after I added elements from my life, and things which I thought related to each other in an
interesting way, none of that is actually a story.
If a dozen other writers wrote a story around the prompts of a corrupt official, a killer scarecrow,
a modern racing motorcycle, and a picture of a 19th century factory floor, none of those stories
would look anything like "Failed Constructs." If you added a divorce and a collapsed
government, I'm not sure they would've been much closer.
The question then is where the actual story came from, and that's a harder question to answer. In
the early versions of the outline, I had the corrupt official somehow managing to engineer his
own death at the hands of the scarecrows, but I couldn't get that to work properly. So I wound up
with someone who wasn't happy with the way the constructs were falling apart, and wanted to fix
Which still isn't where the story came from, and which still doesn't explain where the characters
came from, how their choices were put together in a way that combined to make a narrative.
When it comes down to it, I don't actually know where stories come from, where the characters
come from, despite having nearly as much material in thoughts and outlines before I actually start
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