Tag Archives: ray bradbury

A Serious Influence

To the extent that I’ve been consciously influenced by any writer, it would be Ray Bradbury.

When did I first encounter Bradbury’s stories? I don’t exactly recall, but it was a long time ago. I read his short story “A Sound of Thunder” in either eighth or ninth grade. That was during my family’s brief stay in Sacramento, California, and is the earliest clear memory I have of his work.

Also about that time, my English class screened the 1963 TV documentary Ray Bradbury: The Story of a Writer, which in part follows the author through the development of a short story called “Dial Double Zero.” That story never appeared in print, but the documentary provides a solid glimpse of it through Bradbury’s musings, dramatic presentations of portions of the story, and his reading of the ending.

When I grow up as a writer, I’d like to be Bradbury. That thought has been stuck in my head for many, many years. Of course, in a literal sense it’s impossible. Authors have to find their own voices, their own styles. We each have a unique life, a unique set of experiences upon which we draw, so none of us writes exactly like anyone else.

But if I write even a third as well in my own way as Bradbury did in his, I could be pleased with the results. Sometimes I think I come close. Example: in October 2015 a story called “In the Butcher Shop” spilled out of me in a single hour. I suspect he might have given me a bit of help that day.

October, anyway, was his time of year…

The Umpteenth Draft

If you’ve ever written anything, including term papers for school, you know what a first draft is: a complete but unedited work. So what comes next? Well, you say, obviously editing. And you’re right. But what kind of editing?

Broadly speaking, the adventure starts with overall structure and gradually works its way down to typos. Although not always that neat, once a first draft is done it’s time to step back, draw a deep breath, and look at the big picture.

Ray Bradbury, in his mystery Death is a Lonely Business, summed up the process rather graphically. His lead character, a writer, develops a friendship with a local police chief. The police chief, it turns out, harbors literary ambitions, so the writer helps him get started. His key advice: “Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.”

That’s worth remembering, if only to remind you how good your first draft likely is.

These days, few of us use typewriters. Via computer, it’s easy to edit as you go, and I regularly do that. Most days before writing anything new, I get a running start by rereading what I wrote the prior day and cleaning it up. By the time my so-called first draft is done, it’s already been edited substantially. Even so, it won’t be free of structural problems, substandard writing, or scads of typos. It remains a first draft in spirit, if not precisely in number.

Usually I crawl through a story at least three times before I’m happy with it, after which my wife tears it apart and makes me fix it up again, often contributing new material along the way.

These rewrites are not merely finding better words or fixing spelling errors. I rearrange material, throw out entire scenes and start them over, and add new scenes. I fix glaring continuity errors, plug up holes, and expand upon ideas.

To take one small example, in Ice on the Bay (my current work in progress) , I introduced a stack of boxes at the back of a room in which a murder had occurred. At the time, I didn’t have any plans for them. I didn’t even know what they contained. Nearing the end of the first draft, I realized that Eric Dumas, the principal investigator of the murder, never bothered to ask what was in them, much less look for himself. He should have. And once he did, it turned out to be important.

Completing the first draft may seem like a lot of work, but once it’s done, the real work begins. And until it’s done, one doesn’t have a story worth reading.

A Walk in the Park

On September 20, 1976 at Northwestern University, I met a bright young lady who would before long become my wife. One day that fall I happened to be in her dorm room looking at a poster hanging on her roommate’s wall, a gorgeous photograph of forested mountains draped in the oranges, reds, and golds of autumn. As I admired the poster a story came to mind, and in short order I wrote the first draft of “National Park.”

To be honest, it wasn’t very good. I still had a lot to learn about writing in those days. Over the years, the story was rewritten and recast several times. You can read the current incarnation here, and I suggest you do before going on, because what follows is a serious spoiler.

Initially the story featured one lone character making a climb up a treacherous mountain. The climb lasted only a few pages, and was followed by a startling revelation. (This is where the spoiler comes in, so if you haven’t read the story yet, better do so now!) I left the climber intentionally anonymous, to emphasize what I hoped would be a stunning transformation from the richness of the natural world  to the desolation of the city in which he finds himself.

[SPOILER ALERT!]

That’s right: the National Park isn’t a natural wilderness at all, but a virtual reality experience. The climb didn’t happen except in the character’s head. The story was a cautionary tale about the destruction of the natural world and how increasingly we were being severed from it.

Not bad for 1976, a time when the term “virtual reality” hadn’t even been coined, although a few SF writers had created virtual reality stories before (Bradbury’s brilliantly chilling short story, “The Veldt” comes to mind). Alas, it wasn’t a well-written story.  Over the years I would rewrite it several times.

Even in its improved forms, readers didn’t seem to know what to make of it. One editor rejected it with the comment that although he enjoyed it, at the end all I’d done was to build up the danger to the climber and then reveal that he hadn’t been in any danger at all. Obviously the guy totally missed the point. The danger is real; it’s just not what it first appears to be.

Others told me to give the climber a name, and as I learned more about the sport of climbing, I added considerable detail to the preparations and the climb itself. I also added some other characters, partly to increase the realism and partly to increase the tension. Last but not least, the original story didn’t have a very good hook. The current version starts with one of the climber’s companions suggesting that he’s going to die on the mountain.

Today, virtual reality stories are so commonplace that I doubt “National Park” would excite any editor. So it is now relegated to my files and this blog. But I hope you enjoy it anyway.