“Why Pete?”: The Making of a Story

Last summer I got word from L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest that my short story, “Why Pete?” had been awarded an Honourable Mention in the second quarter of their quarterly international short story contest. I was ecstatic. I had an Honourable Mention from their Illustrators of the Future Contest from the early 90s, and this latest one completed the set.

Honourable Mention for "Why Pete?"

Writers of the Future Honourable Mention, 2nd Quarter 2012, for “Why Pete?” by Tim Reynolds.

“Why Pete?” is a pure science fiction piece written during a year of writing horror, fantasy, vampyre, zombie, and steampunk short stories. It tells the tale of Space Ark Commander Lily Rayn when she awakens from cryosleep near the end of her journey to a new star system with a load of colonists.

The Honourable Mention is a terrific honour and all, but there was no cash prize and the story didn’t get published, unlike the first-place winners. With stories, publication is what it’s all about, with hopefully a little cash thrown my way as a symbolic gesture.

So I submitted “Why Pete?” to Lightspeed Magazine. It was rejected. Next there was another competition at Arc. Nope. Then it was off to Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (a perfect fit, or what?!). They liked it, but it wasn’t for them. Then the story made its way to Clarkesworld and it was rejected so fast it almost bounced. That’s fine, though. Rejection is okay.

Story rejections happen for a number of reasons. Here are a few, in no particular order.

  1. The story really does suck. (This was not a problem with “Why Pete?” because the judges at WOTF are very picky.)
  2. The story is of a type which doesn’t appeal to the editor. (He/she hates space operas, or whatever.)
  3. The story is not a good fit for the publication. (The story is science fiction, the publication is Homes & Gardens.)
  4. The publisher has recently purchased and/or published a similar story. (Just bad timing.)

And then came the much-anticipated call for submissions from Edge Science Fiction & Fantasy Publishing’s Tesseracts Seventeen. Tesseracts is THE Canadian annual speculative fiction anthology. There is often a theme and the only requirement is that the author(s) must be Canadian, in one form or another. Authors whose works have appeared in past editions include Margaret Atwood and Robert J. Sawyer. I have quite a few friends who have had their terrific stories grace the pages of one or more editions of Tesseracts, so I was eager to join their esteemed company. Also, one of my all-time favourite short stories (of mine) was rejected by Tesseracts Sixteen last year, and I was ready for the wind to change.

So I submitted, with fingers and toes crossed. I love all of the stories I write, at least once they’re finished, but “Why Pete?” has a special place in my heart because Lily isn’t based on me whatsoever and yet she came alive for me like few other characters have. I read the story now and I still smile at the way she handles the situation. Yes, I wrote the situation and her reaction, but when a story is written really well, it can separate itself from the author and become its own entity. “Why Pete?” has done that, for me, at least.

“Why Pete?” came about because I wanted to write about fear.  I wanted to write a dark story that made readers shiver, but I wanted to do it without a single monster or creature. I needed a phobia. My own fears aren’t of a phobia level so I stole one from my wife, Sue. She has a fear of being buried alive. Ooh! A good one! I suppose I do, too, once I think about it. Anyone who doesn’t, is crazy as far as I’m concerned.

I’d found my story’s fear factor. Now I just needed to find an original way to tell it. Well, there are no original ideas, just different voices telling the same stories. I wanted something set in space, to become part of a larger literary canvas I’m weaving with a series of novels, and this might just be the right fit. How could I bury someone alive in space? Well, aren’t spaceships just like submarines and simply sealed coffins waiting to be cracked open at the end of a journey? You betcha!

Now for my hero, Pete. Yes, Pete was the original hero during the concept stage. The problem is that I know so many strong women that I thought that it was time I gave them a hero of their own. Enter Lily. Lily Bianca Rayn. Lily (White) Rayn. It has such a cool sound to it. ‘Rayn’ is rain… a purification. Lily and Bianca/White are symbols of innocence. I wanted a character whose very name screamed “innocence and rebirth!!” The story is really about starting fresh, with a blank slate, and that’s what Lily ends up doing.

The science of the story wasn’t too difficult to research. I allowed for the fantasy of cryosleep for a year and travel through a worm hole and then based all of the remaining science on submarines and various previous and existing space missions. By the way, the International Space Ark Mayhew is not named after Peter Mayhew, the actor who played Chewbacca in the Star Wars movies, but rather after my own ancestor, Thomas Mayhew, Governor of Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket & the Queen Elizabeth Islands in the mid-to-late 17th century. Many-Greats Grandpa Tom was an explorer and colonizer in his own right (and had the longest continuous Christian missionary effort in history).

The planet I sent Lily and the ark to is actually one in the Exoplanet Database, and is one of possibly habitable planets discovered by the Kepler telescope.

Because I’m all about using humour to break or bend tension, the Pete in the story became the personality overlay of the artificial intelligence that keeps Lily company during her ordeal. The original Pete who was the basis for the personality overlay, was Lily’s husband at the time of the AI’s programming. To say any more will give away some of the fun of the story, so I won’t. I’ll just add that the although I often start a story with the title, this one didn’t come to me until after the first draft was written and the original title, “One Hand Clapping” just didn’t fit the finished story.

Tesseracts Seventeen

The cover of Tesseracts Seventeen, from Edge Publishing.

I suppose I should tie this post up by adding that “Why Pete?” was selected by editors Colleen Anderson and Steve Vernon for TESSERACTS Seventeen: Speculating Canada from Coast to Coast. It’s due out in October and is available now for pre-order from Amazon.com. For anthologies containing any of my other published stories, here’s my Amazon Author’s page.

Like so many of my short stories, I have an idea where the story starts and some of the things I need to have happen, but quite often I just let the characters and narrative voice start talking and plotting and acting and see where it takes the tale. Sometimes a character will make a simple statement (“I hate dogs.”) and that will lead the story to a place where dogs become important. Maybe she’ll even become a werewolf. Ooo! I like that! ‘Scuse me while I jot that idea down… a cat person becoming a werewolf!

Anyway, without dropping any spoilers, that’s how “Why Pete?” came to be written, awarded, and eventually sold. Next up for the story will be an option by Sony for a Hollywood film starring Mrs. Pitt or  some other tough-as-nails, tender-as-a-kitten woman. Yah. Right.

That’s it, that’s all.

Ciao for now,

T-Bone.

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4 Responses to ““Why Pete?”: The Making of a Story”

  1. Congrats, Tim! I have been rejected by the last 4 (5?) Tesseracts calls so kudos to you 🙂

  2. colleenanderson Says:

    Tim, it was a worthy story and one of the really down to its essence SF stories we received. You could add a #6 to why a story may not be picked: the magazine needs big names to sell the whole kit and kaboodle, so while your story might actually be better than the one they bought, your name might not be as widely known.

    BTW, Steve and I each have only ever been in one Tesseracts anthology. Now I’m going to have to think of new questions for you once I interview you for my blog. 🙂

    • Thanks, Colleen.

      Some day I hope to be the big name in the anthologies, although I wouldn’t want to bump a rookie’s great story because I’m a mucky-muck. 😉

      I look forward to your questions. I’ll have to come up with some for you two, for a Tao of Tim post closer to October 1. 🙂

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