A few days ago I dragged my old (and by “old” I mean ancient) stories out from under my bed and read through them. A couple weren’t bad. Many were snippets, fragments of thought. Perhaps today we’d call them microfiction. But all the stories had at least one glaring beginner mistake.
I began writing my boxed stories well over a decade ago at a time when the only arc I knew was the one Indiana Jones acquired from the Nazis. In those days, I finished about half my stories, but even the ones I did complete didn’t satisfy me. I knew there was something wrong with them but couldn’t quite figure out what.
Today, I thought I’d be fun to take one of the first stories I ever wrote and look at the beginner mistakes I made.
The story I chose—it’s one of my favorites; my execution didn’t do it justice—is about an enormous spaceship, a conservatory, traveling through deep space. It is thousands of years in the future and, though humankind is long since extinct, it carries our collective memories, entrusted to bioengineered orbs, into the future.
Remember the alien probe from Star Trek IV? I imagined it like that, only rather than being a transport carrier for blue whales this ship sustained the life processes of organic orbs that are each encoded with the consciousness of one person.
The vessel is almost like a ghost ship, wandering the universe, its only goal to keep its cargo safe.
I thought it would be fun to take this story and try to diagnose what was wrong with it, with my expression of the idea.
Mistakes I Made:
1. The protagonist isn’t active. The orbs don’t really DO anything.
2. It’s not clear what the protagonist wants.
3. Nothing happens.
In the case of this story, 1 & 2 & 3 are due to …
4. The wrong character is the protagonist.
When I began writing “The Ship” I had thought the contents of the ship, the orbs, were what the story was about, and that led me right smack into a brick wall. Why? Because the orbs don’t change over the course of the story! It’s implied they will change, transform, at some later date, but during the story … eh, not so much.
The story, as it stands, is about the ship. The ship has a goal: to safeguard the orbs. It refuels at conveniently placed stars and avoids dangers such as black holes, comets, asteroid belts, the odd space-pirate, and so on.
In retrospect, the idea is something like Silent Running, but after the bio-dome is set free to wander the solar system.
Summary Of Faults:
1) The protagonist isn’t active.
The protagonist, the orbs, aren’t active. They are literal blobs of goo. They don’t DO anything.
2) No goal.
Perhaps the reason the orbs don’t do anything is because they don’t want anything. After all, they’re gelatinous blobs, what could they possibly want?
Against this my former self could argue they would want to stay alive, and that’s a good point, but the orbs live in a dream and have no knowledge of their true form.
3) The wrong character.
If I was going to try to fix this story—which I’m not going to do; it is what it is and will be lovingly re-boxed and slid under my bed—I would make the ship the protagonist. The ship goes places and wants things. It can be harmed.
4) Nothing happens.
Now, I would begin the story at a point where the ship’s goal is put in jeopardy. Perhaps it’s running out of fuel, or it comes across an especially well-equipped band of space pirates.
Or we could put the two together and say that, not only is it running out of fuel (and so must conserve energy) but its radar has just detected space pirates in the vicinity.
That’s the ticket!
That’s it for today. Have you looked at your old stories recently? If so, what beginner mistakes did you make?
BTW, here is the text of my story. Please keep in mind that I wrote this many, MANY, years ago. I know it is far from perfect. Read at your own risk. ;)
“The Ship,” by (a very young) Karen Woodward
The ship drifts through deep space. To an observer it would appear dead. Only the occasional whir of machinery disturbs the silence of its corridors.
Endless walkways, unused for millennia, snake through its body and lead to a vast metal womb, control panels decorating the walls. Lights blink on and off in hypnotic patterns that wash over a metal tank positioned at the center. Inside the tank, bathed by iridescent light, orbs float in lukewarm transparent liquid.
The orbs dream of other places, other centuries—the soothing babble of a brook or the adrenaline filled, death defying, plunge of a skydiver. If any of the orbs become overexcited, the ship emits a light from one of the panels. The light bathes the affected orb in shifting patterns of illumination until its thought patterns quiet.
Once every few millennia the ship corrects its course to avoid the death of a star. Occasionally, one of the orbs dreams of death and the ship assimilates its memories. Even more rarely, one of the orbs deteriorates, its cells dying. At these times, or in anticipation of them, one of the womb's panels retracts and a robot emerges. The robot injects the orb with substances designed to regenerate cells, mending it. With regular tending, the orbs are immortal as the stars, kept alive in anticipation of the beginning at the end of time.
Photo credit: Pulp-O-Mizer
Photo credit: Pulp-O-Mizer