Now that the full novel of How It Ends has been published, I plan to spend a couple (maybe several) posts exploring my experience with it, from concept to final product, detailing the history of the writing, editing, and self-publishing of my novel. This first post is an exploration of where the story came from and how I ended up writing a novel in the first place.
About ten years ago I was a pretty active member of an online webzine community called Silverthought. Silverthought was and is a webzine dedicated to science fiction. They now have a print division that has produced several books, of which I’ve been fortunate enough to be a contributor to two collections, Ignition and Thank You, Death Robot. I submitted stories on a regular basis, and the ones that the editor, Paul, felt were of enough quality were published. I still have some stories list in their archive, which you can find here: http://www.silverthought.com/online/archive.html#L. Silverthought itself seems to be in something of a suspended animation, probably because most of the principle players had a couple of kids and, you know, life happens.
During the time I was active on Silverthought, I submitted and they published a short story I entitled “End of Life”. If memory serves, I wrote this as an exercise based on a writing prompt on Silverthought. That prompt was specifically around telling a story about a “death robot”. Whatever that is. And the was the main problem I had with the prompt: I had no idea what a “death robot” was. Yeah, sure, we can all call to mind images of Ah-nuld as the Terminator, or the tall bit of piping from The Empire Strikes Back known as IG-88, the assassin robot bounty hunter. But there had to be more to the idea. I just didn’t know what that was.
Of all things, NPR offered me the answer. I was listening to Morning Edition on my way to work, and a report on Oregon’s “Death With Dignity” laws came on. You can here the original audio piece here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1382291. It all came crashing into my head at once. A robot physician. A robot physician specializing in geriatric medicine and end-of-life care. A society in which physician-assisted suicide is perfectly legal. Physician-assisted suicide as a natural extension of end-of-life care. A robot that can administer the protocol for physician-assisted suicide. Moral ambiguity of “farming out” the killing of another human, humanity keeping their killing protocols in place but washing their hands of the actual dirty-work. Bang! It was all right there.
Years later, this same idea of humanity sub-contracting their killing out to sentient, non-living beings such as robots would continue to haunt me. It became the basis for my short story “Commission Report on the Virginian Confessor Program”, which was ultimately included in Silverthought’s Thank You, Death Robot anthology.
I got down to the business of writing and, as happens with me sometimes, the story just tumbled out. It was the story of a man in a position to evaluate the robotic physician program at a local hospital and witness a robot administer physician-assisted suicide first hand, and how that chilling the evaluator found that. I finished the story and submitted it to Silverthought, which published it. At that time, Silverthought was also allowing guest editors to post reviews of the pieces they published. I’m not sure what the purpose of this was, since reviewing the material you’ve already posted seems a little circular, but that was their model at the time. Guest editor and Chief Reviewer Mark Brand reviewed the piece, and I’m happy to say that the review was glowing: http://www.silverthought.com/wordpress/?p=156
I was very happy with the review, and felt satisfied that I had executed well on an idea, which, as any writer will tell you, is never a guarantee. At that point I thought I was done. Apparently I wasn’t.
A friend of mine, Norm, who was also mildly active in Silverthought at the time, read “End Of Life”. His response was simple: “Good story. Where’s the rest of it?”
I was a little shocked.
“What do you mean, ‘the rest of it’?”
“There’s more story there. I can tell. Go find it and tell it.”
This brief conversation made me pause. I hadn’t thought there was more story. I thought I had told all the story there was to tell with this one. Could he be right?
I spent some time thinking through what it really meant to explore the world of “End Of Life” more. I thought through various scenarios and ideas, and as it began to materialize in my head, I realized my friend was right. There was indeed more story. In fact, the story I told in “End Of Life” was really something of a subplot to the main story. The story of the robot physician “Kilgore” was, while not quite a diversion, surely a side piece to the main plot of a story about a robot that would come to be named “Gammons”. “End Of Life” was ultimately the fourth or fifth chapter in a longer work that would emerge. The main idea and plotting of what would become How It Ends did not come crashing into my head the way it did with “End Of Life”. I had to turn it over again and again to see where I was going. But as I progressed through the first few chapters, trying to see where I was being steered, eventually it clicked, like the proverbial tumblers in a lock. And once I was locked it, the writing really began.
Tomorrow: Writing How It Ends and the surprise of publishing it serially.