Observations from the City of Angels

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Bear with me a minute or two. This takes some explaining.

Back in 1994, I wrote a story I called "L.A. by Night," about a software developer who has volunteered to be a guinea pig in an experiment about tracking parolees via implanted devices that let the monitoring AI see and hear what he sees and hears. The story was about the havoc this wreaks on his marriage, and on the unlikely (and unwelcome) protectiveness the AI comes to feel toward him.

The story wasn't all that great, and I had no luck with the first couple of submissions. A year later, having moved briefly to Seattle, I hit on an image that seemed to embody for me the central metaphor of the narrative and which I thought might jumpstart the story. I rewrote the story as "The Sweet Scent of Night-Blooming Jasmine" and sent it off to Scott Edelman at Science Fiction Age.

Scott liked it a lot, but ultimately rejected it because he thought Age readers might not be able to look past the prurience of the story to what it was really about. "I'll probably live to regret this," I remember him writing in his rejection.

Years passed—seven, to be precise. Sometime last year I read the story aloud to Laura, as I do now with everything I've either newly completed or am contemplating revisiting. She didn't read much in the way of science fiction before we met, but she seems to have a literary sensibility that's extraordinarily attuned to what I'm trying to accomplish. Moreover, she's almost unerring in her ability to judge that a particular piece is ready to go to a particular market. (With stories she doesn't like, this ability is diminished—she hated "The Practical Ramifications of Interstellar Packet Loss," for example—but when she likes a story, she's really on, and her enthusiasm is uncontainable and contagious.)

So I read "Jasmine" aloud to Laura, and she found it pleasant and charming, though nothing to write home about. Rereading the thing myself, I came to feel that the prurient elements were indeed unnecessary, and that the story would work better without the almost-adulterous episode that opened it. But the story still needed something else, and I didn't immediately know what that was.

It was last month, while I for some reason couldn't quite bring myself to tackle revisions on my Varley pastiche "Inclination," that I thought to look at "Jasmine" again. Why not? I've been having good luck this year with ancient trunk stories revisited—two of them should run in the next two issues of Realms of Fantasy, and one is out now in the current Electric Velocipede. As I thought about the story over the next couple of days, the solution came to me. I'd let the AI itself narrate the story, and I'd make the protagonist one of seven participants in the parolee experiment. Only now, the experiment would be more like an unholy marriage between blogging and reality TV—subscribers could tune in at will to their favorite participants, and experience all the same sensations in realtime.

The work went very slowly for the first week or so. I found that I'd essentially be starting over, and throwing out almost every sentence that had come before. I only managed to slog through two or three pages in the first half-hearted sessions. But over the long weekend just past, things started to come together. The pace of the work accelerated, and in fact on Sunday I wrote well over half the eventual wordage in one marathon session that followed a two-hour bike ride out to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. I put the finishing touches on it Monday morning before work.

That evening, I read this new story, "Observations from the City of Angels," aloud to Laura at the kitchen table, marking typos and making small revision notes in the margins as I went. About two-thirds in, Laura burst out, "I see this as a movie!" Her final verdict was extremely positive, and her only suggestion—a directive, actually—was that I change what the wife is wearing during the last scenes from baggy to tight jeans. "Fix that and send it to Ellen tomorrow," she said.

I had submitted a story to Ellen Datlow at Sci Fiction (to whom Laura referred) just a couple of weeks before, however, and hadn't heard back yet, so yesterday morning on the bike ride to work I was idly wondering where else I might send it in the meantime. Not Asimov's yet—that would take too long—do that after Sci Fiction. . . .

I'm not sure exactly where the idea came from, but by the time I reached the office I was raring to check the submission guidelines for Salon. Hey, Cory Doctorow pulled off the unlikely feat of selling them two near-future 'Net-centric stories in the past year. What did I have to lose?

I dashed off a note to Cory asking what editor to approach. He replied quickly and generously, and I labored a bit longer over my query email, sending it over to Laura for her to vet. The editor responded to the query very quickly, inviting me to submit the story. I converted my WordPerfect file to Word format, cleaned up the formatting, and emailed the attachment at 4:15 pm.

The acceptance came back sixty-two minutes later. I didn't get anything done the rest of the day. I walked around in a daze, hands shaking.

My agent has just finished negotiating the contract, so it looks like we're in business. I hope to sign the thing and fax it back tomorrow. I just hope Scott doesn't regret making the decision he did about the earlier version. I sure as hell don't hold a grudge.

[ original post:  http://shunn.livejournal.com/106002.html ]

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This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on July 9, 2003 11:58 PM.

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