What I Learned From Writing The Lacertan Incident

Photo Credit: Antonio Litterio.

Photo Credit: Antonio Litterio.

Last week, I published one of my short stories, The Lacertan Incident, on my blog. This week, I wanted to share some of the process of how I wrote and rewrote it, and what I learned from the experience.

I wrote the first version of The Lacertan Incident in the summer of 2009 under the working title Lacerta. I had never written a full-length novel at that time, nor had I gotten into the habit of writing every day or really in quantity at all, so this story was one of the most significant things I had written, and I thought it was my best work to date.

The first person I showed the story to absolutely loved it–probably the most enthusiastic response I had gotten at the time, and for several years afterward. At that point, I thought the story was pretty good. Even if it had some problems, it couldn’t be that bad if the first person I asked loved it so much right?

How wrong I was.Despite one positive review, I knew enough not to trust one review. This review had also come from a non-writer, and I wanted to get advice from a couple of writer friends of mine before I did anything more with it. I showed it to them, and they panned it, heavily, along with what I took as some sharp criticism of my writing ability in general. That was hard to take.

What was worse, I quickly saw that their criticisms were mostly right. In that first version of the story, all of the characters were over the top. Captain Garcia and Rajiv were about to come to blows and showed no sense of decorum. Vitoria was written like an overemotional version of Wesley Crusher. And the story was weighed down by cumbersome, unnecessary details.

Moral: Don’t ever trust a single review, no matter how good it is.

Moral the second: The first draft is usually pretty terrible.

So I rewrote the story. I cleaned up many of the parts my writer friends had criticized and showed both versions to a couple of other people, who said that my second version was much better. At that point, even thought I didn’t have as much feedback as I wanted (it is really hard to get good feedback these days), in early 2010, I submitted it to the three main science fiction literary magazines, Analog, Asimov’s, and Fantasy & Science Fiction, under the title¬†We Come in Peace. None of them wanted it.

That in itself wasn’t too surprising. The major magazines only have room to print about a tenth of the stories they receive just out of the ones that are worth reading. At that point, I stuck the story on my hard drive and resolved to try shopping it around some more once I got some actual publishing credits for something else, along with a vague notion that I should look into second-string or semi-pro magazines sometime.

Moral: It takes a lot of work to get into traditional publishing.

That’s where it sat for five years, until this month, when I just decided to put it on my blog. Over the intervening five years, I continued to improve my writing style, and I became increasingly aware that the way to get started in the industry is fast becoming online self-publishing. So last month, I started posting my short stories here.

When I picked up the story again to revise it for the blog, I was embarrassed at how bad it was. I thought it was great five years ago, but I’ve come a long way since then, it seems. The first problem was that while I tried to fix the problem of melodramatic characters and clunky descriptions, I hadn’t gone far enough. These are supposed to be professional men and women hand-picked for a long-term mission of exploration. They need to act professional.

The second problem was related. When I first wrote this story, I didn’t have much idea of how the dynamics of the crew of the Balboa should work. It’s an internationally chartered ship with some aspects of NASA spaceflight crews, earth merchant ships, and a little bit of military flavor. I didn’t know how to show that well at the time. However, I have since written (most of) a full-length novel centered around a very similar ship of exploration, and I was able to fully develop my style there. Now that I knew the style I needed, I found it flowed a lot better.

Third, continuing along those lines, while I had my History of the Future series, of which The Lacertan Incident is a part, planned out from the beginning. I didn’t have a good idea of the overall timeline, and I hadn’t fully developed the physics the characters use (the gravity beam and such). I’ve since filled that in, and I had to revise the details of the characters’ technology. I also had to tweak things to reflect developments in the real world. I originally had Mike carrying a separate translator unit, but the rise of all-in-one mobile compute saw that disappeared and changed to pure software.

Moral: Keep developing your craft. There’s always room to improve. The downside to this is that your best work won’t look so good in a few years.

Moral the fifth: Times change. This can affect your story, and how you try to sell your story. Be prepared to change with them.

Finally, I changed the title again. I had never liked either of my first two titles, but The Lacertan Incident seemed to fit. Newly cleaned up, I felt good enough about my third version to publish it. I may regret that in a few years, but it’s all part of the process.

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About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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