Friday, 27 January 2012

How I write short stories - beginnings

People ask me how I write stories, so here's a Scifi one I'm working on. Like all short stories it should have a fresh, catchy first line, one that grabs the reader's attention, sets the tone and tells the reader what it's about. So, it starts like this. 

First Contact hadn’t been a problem; fifth was catastrophic.

Like it? It's about an invasion, but not the normal run of the mill type. But it is aggressive. First I show it  as seen externally:

The Krilleyan ships decelerated so hard from faster-than-light speed as they reached the solar system that they triggered massive EM spikes. Ninety-eight per cent of Solar and planetary defence techware was fried in less than a second. By the time Pluto Delta’s detection grid had relayed the inbound swarm, the first of the five thousand starfish-shaped ships had already breached Earth’s atmosphere. Orbital missile stations, the few that had the latest EM-proof bioware borrowed from a friendlier species, had no chance to lock target. At least one general ordered panic-fire; the last order he gave, as one of the inbounds edged its descent vector, the kinetic impact obliterating the station while leaving the starfish unscathed.

So, the writing will be smoothed out later, but I'm happy with the name (Krilleya), and there's enough peppering of SF words in there (bioware, faster-than light) to set a SF tone, but not so much that it seems like 'hard' Science Fiction. I use imagery that people can imagine easily (starfish-shaped craft). But on the first page I also want to introduce the protagonist, and make the invasion more palpable, which I do in the next paragraph:

At ground level, Salak couldn’t run for the grinding pain from the screeching hailstorm of ships. Kneeling, hands plastered over his ears to escape the crushing din, he raised his head just enough to see the coral-coloured ships as they tore through the sky, pink and black whorls trailing behind them. They didn’t seem interested in braking. He staggered to his feet, just as three mil jets, in what must surely have been a suicide chase, fired on one of them. Flames billowed on one of its fingers, stretched behind it like a ragged flag, and were left behind. It pummelled into San Francisco Bay, the jets following it, and with horror he realized what was coming next. 

The name Salak is a bit 'Vulcan', but it's easy enough on the mental tongue. The main senses here are sound and vision. We've slipped into Salak's point of view, though it could still be the narrator's, but the key sentence that begins to set the tone of Salak's personality is 'They didn't seem interested in braking.' This will become important later, because his state of mind is what resolves the story later on. The end of  the para is a challenge to the reader - what does he realize is coming next? 

He turned and ran through the crowd behind him, sprinting up San Fran’s notorious stepped lanes, dodging the stalled cars and dazed people. The concrete underneath him shook, knocking him off his feet. It was hard to hear people’s screams above the hammering bass shock waves that segued into a sizzling hiss as four more ships struck the water. A friend, Sarah, stood nearby, willow-like, transfixed, watching the show. He shouted to her but his voice sounded muted in his ears, just as he saw blood trickling from hers. Salak touched his own lobes and felt the wetness there, too. He grabbed her by the shoulders, but she didn’t react, didn’t see him. At first he pulled her by the wrist, but she was dead weight, so he picked her up in a fireman’s lift and ran again, trying to take two steps at a time. As his hearing failed, each ship’s impact sounded like a distant gunshot, and then stopped; no more ships. He kept running, and didn’t turn around, didn’t need to. Each time he passed somebody he saw their eyes grow wider; some fell down in panic, and he felt bad that he couldn’t stop to help them, but it was just him and Sarah now. A sound of thunder – more like a feeling in his bones – grew behind him, and the afternoon city was plunged into shade by the wave about to engulf it. Salak stared ahead, focused on the steps, careful not to fall, and ran as fast as his legs could carry them, always upwards.

So, from here on it stays with Salak. I've introduced Sarah, a more normal contemporary name which together with 'Salak' gives the impression this is in the future but not so far, and Sarah is a possible future love interest, or counterpoint. Salak is set up as a sympathetic character, but also pragmatic - he knows he can save Sarah, but if he tries to save any more, he'll save no one; yet still he feels guilt. But also he acts, focusing on one simple thing, climbing to beat the tsunami wave.

From here there is a section break and the story shifts to several days later, having mentioned Salak's background - he is in the new exo-diplomatic corps, an alien comms expert - when mankind tries to retaliate. I skip a few paragraphs ahead, to where the ships have settled to the bottom of the oceans:

But the ships just sat there. That was fine with the Generals, except that none of their weapons managed to damage or dent the starfish hulls. Salak and others the world over tried to communicate with the ships, even using dolphin proto-language and whale-song, and the four new alien dialects, but silence was the only response.

Inevitably, the US President took the tactical lead and agreed to deploy a nuke against a cluster of the ships deep in the Solomon Trench – the Solomon Islands had long since acceded to global warming. It worked, one of the ships was damaged, three of its five fingers broken off and melted, the central husk smashed and scorched.
The reprisal was terrible. Within thirty minutes, tsunamis occurred at fifty coastal locations worldwide. Severe weather patterns erupted worldwide: cyclones, hurricanes, floods, and three days of black cloud obscured the sun and plunged Earth into darkness.
There were no more tac-nuke strikes.
And so the ships just sat there, inert.
Except they weren’t, of course. They were incubating. On the first full moon, almost a month after their arrival, billions of Krilleya larvae left their egg-ships and headed upwards.

That's the set-up of the story. Hopefully, if you've got this far, you'd want to know more. The story's working title at the moment is Diplomatic Solution, and it takes a few different angles on conventional themes like invasion, what an alien race might want from Earth, the difficulties of communication when there is no common frame of reference, and how far diplomacy might go for the sake of peace.

What I've shown here is second draft, and it will be about draft six by the time I send it anywhere. In any case, it will end up in my 'Stories' section of this website sometime this year. Stay tuned...

The Eden Paradox is available on Amazon in paperback and ebook
Eden's Trial is available on Amazon in ebook
Edens Revenge is coming end 2012...

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