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February 25, 2006

International Embarass Yourself as an Artist Day

Elizabeth Bear throws down a challenge to the writers:

Okay, I double-dog dare you. Go ahead and post the awfullest, grottiest, ancientest piece of juvenilia you still have a word processor that will open. I'll wait.

Then we can all congratulate ourselves on how far we've come.

I can do that.

Behold "Ice Machine," a story named after an obscure Depeche Mode song but otherwise having nothing to do with that band or that song: It's about a private investigator on the trail of a serial killer -- on an asteriod. Because, honestly, where else would one be? I wrote two-thirds of the story when I was seventeen and two-thirds when I was twenty-one, so not only is it bad, it's also disjointed. And that's what you look for in a story like this, isn't it.

Now, fair warning: There are many things bad and broken about this story, namely plot, characterization and dialogue. Probably also spelling and grammar. I used to think it was pretty good, but two stints as an editor and four novels have disabused me of that notion. The best that can be said of it is that it is probably no worse than most science fiction stories written by seventeen (or twenty-one) year olds.

No, I didn't try to sell it, although I did enter it into an undergraduate writing contest at the U of C and came in third, which reflects the lack of competition more than anything else. To be entirely honest after this story I didn't write another short story for a decade -- three years after I wrote Agent to the Stars, in fact. And I did manage to sell that one (to Strange Horizons, which at the time didn't count as a pro sale, which I suppose is good for my Campbell eligibility). I've only written two other short stories since then, however. Although I'm writing a new one this weekend! Go me! Let's hope I've learned something useful since I wrote the one you have here.

And remember: If you're traumatized, blame Bear. She made me do it.

Posted by john at February 25, 2006 03:05 AM

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elizabeth bear | February 25, 2006 09:15 AM

I held a gun to his head.

It's true.

Gabe | February 25, 2006 10:47 AM

I went on a purging in 1999 and deleted enough bad fiction to fill several Mead notebooks.

That said, I think have one piece that's bad enough for this exercise.

cherie priest | February 25, 2006 01:00 PM

Circa age 14 ansty pre-gothdom:

"Bury me at midnight, beneath a shadowed moon
Let no tear-strained voices moan a melancholy tune."

Thank God I can't remember the rest.

John Scalzi | February 25, 2006 01:03 PM

That's pre-gothdom? Damn, girl.

doubt | February 25, 2006 01:42 PM

There wasn't beer involved when you were trying to come up with character names, was there?

John Scalzi | February 25, 2006 01:47 PM

Indeed there there was! Oddly, however, I don't drink. Go figure.

Tom Nixon | February 26, 2006 04:21 AM

Writing styles are so interesting. My master's degree is in linguistics and I've studied just enough syntac, stylistics and forensic linguistics to get me in trouble (if you can imagine).

While your writing has improved tremendously (and you don't need me to tell you that), so many part of "Ice Machine" have the look and feel of the later John Scalzi.

However, I should mention that I wish I wrote fiction today as well as the John of 1991 (or therabouts). Perhaps that is why I write nonfiction. At least with that, I can pretend I know what I am doing.

John Scalzi | February 26, 2006 04:23 AM

Tom Nixon:

"While your writing has improved tremendously (and you don't need me to tell you that), so many parts of 'Ice Machine' have the look and feel of the later John Scalzi."

Oh, yeah. There's no doubt about that -- it sounds like me, it's just not good me. Or at least, the good me today (it was as good as I could be when I was seventeen).

Laurie Mann | February 26, 2006 10:41 AM

I did it (but my comment fell away from Elizabeth's LJ for some reason).


Anne C. | February 26, 2006 02:06 PM

I love that the bad writing you and Elizabeth posted are still leaps and bounds ahead of some of the bad writing I've read in my time. I flatter myself to think that my good writing is in there at the level of your bad, giving me hope for the future.
Here's a story for your low Expectations, written in 1994, when I was 20. To my shame, it's not even entertainingly bad. Fortunately the same editor that rejected it accepted a better story from me two years later.
Thanks for sharing your "failures" with us!

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