Something Old, Something New

It’s been an interesting week for me, short-story-wise. One of my newest stories — as in, I wrote it this past January, and it’s the newest-but-three of all my short fiction — went online at Strange Horizons: “Another End of the Empire”.

Also this week, Daikaijuzine posted a reprint of my first ever published story, which first appeared in a little ‘zine called Maelstrom back in 1999: “53rd Annual Mantis Homecoming Dance”.

Now, writers are poor judges and critics of their own work, and I’m not going to subject you to some compare-and-contrast essay here, but it occurs to me that there’s a cool decade between these two stories — more like eleven years between the time they were written, actually. Makes me curious about how far I’ve come as a writer, and how many things about my approach have remained the same.

First, “Mantis Dance” was derivative (in the best way), inspired a bit by the skewed weirdness of James Sallis’s story “53rd American Dream” from one of the Dangerous Visions anthologies. I wanted to capture the feel of that story, the sense that you’re in a recognizable world, but then things twist and reality undergoes a sudden shift away from the familiar. Vertigo, confusion, discontinuity; those are the things I wished to create in the reader. (Dunno that I succeeded, but that was the goal.) Other qualities I note in that story: the prose is pretty clunky, the characters are caricatured in the extreme, the violence is pleasantly gleeful, it’s about high school and was written when I was only three years out of high school, and the best line — “Take out their knees, and they’re on the ground. Once they’re on the ground, they’re meat.” — was stolen (er, borrowed, with permission, actually) verbatim from something my friend D. said to me once. It’s also a pretty painfully ham-fisted metaphor for teenage male/female relationships and the social dangers of high school.

As for “Another End of the Empire,” well, hell, it’s derivative, too — inspired by every fantasy I’ve ever read with a Dark Lord and a soulless totalitarian empire. But, in this case, my wish was to subvert, not to replicate, those prior reading experiences. At the same time, though, I wanted to pay homage to the things I like about those stories. I wanted to humanize the inhuman dark lord, I wanted to mess around a bit with notions of dire prophecy, and I wanted to both have fun and create something that’s ultimately emotionally affecting. I can’t speak to whether or not I succeeded, but I can say I was aiming a lot higher with this story, trying for a much more ambitious set of goals. And the characters, though dependent to a certain extent on stereotypes — my dark lord is referred to as Dark Lord Mogrash! — are a lot more well-rounded, with their actual characteristics playing against type. Also: the prose is a lot better. The metaphors are better integrated. There are some nice moments of whimsy. The descriptions are more robust. So, you know, good to see I became a better writer in the intervening decade.

But, more importantly, I went from attempting to copy (ineffectively) another author’s voice to developing my own. I did a lot of chameleon writing when I was younger — I’d read something I thought was cool, and would try to write something in that style. It was an important part of my development, but the copying was a means, not an end. It gave me more tools for my trade, more tricks in my repertoire, all on the way to creating my own voice. I learned to aim higher. I gradually developed a voice of my own. Both were necessary. Both are ongoing.

I’m not saying either of these stories is deathless prose that will outlive me, but I’m pleased with how far I’ve come in ten years. It gives me hope for the next ten.

-Tim Pratt

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