Speculative fiction has been a favorite genre of mine for years. I like the ideas in the fiction; I like the short story length. It gives a writer a chance to work on his/her craft; in essence, it gives a writer a chance to be a wordsmith.
Writing comes down to creating connections—making that momentary bridge between the writer and the readers—and those connections are made through words. In its basic sense, writing is a means of transmitting the thoughts and images that reside in a writer’s brain to a reader in the most effective and accurate fashion. In a letter to George Bainton in 1888, one of my favorite authors, Mark Twain, described the desire for this accuracy in the following way: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
This is what I look for in speculative fiction—words or phrases that can make that connection between the reader and the writer with the force of a bolt of lightning. This is what I search for as a reader and this is what I strive for as a writer—the amount of impact that will make a story memorable.
Recently I had that “lightning bolt” reaction when reading Ken Liu’s speculative fiction story, “The Paper Menagerie.” A friend of mine had a similar reaction when reading Brian Grigg’s “Wendell, Custodian of the Galaxy,” published in the March, 2013 issue of Penumbra (a story that I really enjoyed as well!). What causes that “lightning bolt” reaction with a reader? I know when it happens to me as a reader, but it is something I continue to work on each time I put a metaphoric pen to paper.
Many of my short stories start out a great deal longer than their finished versions. I pare them down, looking for those essential words or phrases that will connote as much meaning to a reader as an entire paragraph. This is not an easy task; changing one paragraph can alter the entire meaning of the story. This is where multiple drafts come in, and why I am grateful for the technology we have today. I can save one version of a story, make changes, and go back to the first version if I prefer it with a mere click of a mouse button. (I almost cannot imagine writing and revising with pen and paper the way that Twain did!)
If all this goes well, I will create a connection to my readers with my words. They will interiorize the thoughts and images from my writing. They will see the characters, experience the emotions, and wander in the storyscape I create. We will have that momentary bridge of understanding, complete with a lightning bolt or two.
(Originally published for the Penumbra Blog at Musapublishing.com)