I have a short story called “Cactus Season” featured in the May/June 2019 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. It’s one of those stories that feels near and dear to me. I’ve been working on a larger project and this story was a flashback that didn’t fit, but I liked it, so I developed into a longer thing.
The story is about a young girl and her father who make a living harvesting orbital debris. Though it’s set in a resource-deprived, far-future, I like to think it’s optimistic.
Here is the opening:
Burning junk glittered as it fell to Earth— dead satellites, starship trash.
“We’re closer to space than the sea,” Olek said, turning his attention to a pot of beans bubbling on the fire. “No wonder the stars are always falling down on us.”
His daughter Sana rolled her brown eyes. At least twice a year, a significant chunk of orbital debris smashed down against the Hamada—sheets of warped metal, turbines, blackened chunks of gold, balled up and compacted like a meteorite. For junkers like Olek and Sana, this was the good stuff, the rare stuff. But the year had been hard. Sana and Olek were down to dried beans—a last-chance food.
And it goes on from there to tell a story about how Sana gets by when Olek goes away and becomes lost, as she waits for the cactus fruit to ripen.
I’ve been grinding away at writing SF for a few years now. Writing SF is hard. There are rules to it. And expectations. I’ve spent a while trying to build a foundation of understanding to be able to write a decent SF story. Since I’ve published a few stories that feature my particular quirks, I think I’m figuring out the rules a bit.
So here are a few ideas about writing.
First, you have to read other stories and you have to dig into the stories and writers that appeal to you. Learn what people who know the genre know, as best you can. You don’t want to be boring, and you don’t want to present a well-worn idea as new. Neither Columbus nor the Vikings discovered America. There were a lot of people living there first.
At its most basic, a SF story must have a science-based premise, with a problem and a solution. This problem informs the plot. The setting can be of your choosing. Although if you think you can just revise a piece of short fiction to take place on another planet and throw in some zap guns and call it SF—you’re wrong. Trust me. People on the internet will call you out.
It can be a small problem—I keep asking the coffeemaker on this starship to give me a cappuccino but instead it keeps spitting out kittens! What am I going to do with all of these kittens?! And then the problem increases the stakes. Oh god, the kittens have melded with the ship’s AI and now they’re about to cause a galactic civil war. This problem needs a solution. Captain, it’s time to call in a quantum barista!
Su-u-ure that’s science, right? And hey who’s that right at the end? The human who provides the emotional core to the story.
I’m not really sure how much the science dominated the story of “Cactus Season” but it did inform the setting and conflict. Stripped away, you’d still have the people in the center. I think the characters would still work in a different setting, with a non-SF plot, but the story would lack the depth—and vice-versa. Finding a balance is the trick.
For me, that happens during revisions. I usually don’t know what the story is really about until I’ve spent some time picking away at it. I start each draft in a notebook and write out the first draft by hand. That lets my mind wander, and I end up with a lot that I don’t use, but it’s information that becomes relevant to the character and the situation.
I’ve been working on world-building. I like the stories that tease out the information, allowing the reader to puzzle their way through, instead of info-dumps. But in a compressed format like a short story—again, that’s a delicate balance.
There is a bit of magic to it all, which is revealed when a story is accepted. All of the elements worked somehow. Trying to replicate what worked again has never succeeded for me. I just need to follow the next idea wherever it goes.
And you can’t find ideas unless you write them down.