First Appeared: Leading Edge
Published: May 17, 2019
Byline: Paul A. Hamilton
Edited by: Abigail Miner
Permanent Link: leadingedgemagazine.com
Cost: Free (Kindle Unlimited); $6.99 (Paperback)
Content: Rated PG, Mild Terror, Thematic Elements
Behind the Story
Several years ago, when my daughter was only four or five, she was standing in the dining room of our apartment at the time. We were chatting, nothing consequential, just idle conversation with a child.
These kinds of adult-to-child conversations are occasionally made of solid gold. Children can come up with remarkably insightful or unintentionally hilarious observations or turns of phrase. But honestly, most of the time they’re just kind of bemusing. Kids are interested in a lot of stuff adults struggle to engage with. They ask a lot of questions that aren’t real brain-busters. They ask about stuff that’s very difficult to answer, too, but a lot of the questions are less of the “when does the wind stop?” variety and more of the “why can’t dogs fly?” sort. Still, when you’re a parent, you take the conversations with your kids sort of at face value. I presume at some point I may have political debates with my kids. I’ll have to break down complex topics or they will teach me about things I’m too old to “get.” When they’re young and they want to recount the latest episode of “Octonauts,” you just sorta let that happen.
Anyway, as I recall it, apropos of nothing she tosses this into the conversational ether: “I made up a word. Want to hear it? It’s ‘coyotia’.” She pronounced it “ky-oh-sha.” With barely a breath in between she went on, “Can you tell me what it means?”
When I had regained my barely-held composure, I shrugged. “Maybe it’s a word for a family of coyotes?” I offered.
She looked thoughtful for a moment, a slow shallow nod picking up speed. “Yeah, okay.” She looked at me for a minute, as if sizing me up. “Can you tell me a story about it?”
“The family of coyotes?”
“Yes,” she said.
So, on the spot, I stammered out a story about a brother and sister coyote who discover the city near the desert where they live and hunt is all but empty. They run to tell their mother who brings them further out into the desert and they find a strange looking ship there. They are approached by some of the strange creatures who live on the ship, who ask them if they want to go for a ride. The coyotes say yes and they have a fun adventure to the stars.
I don’t think she was terribly impressed with my improv.
But, the neologism and, to a lesser extent, my on-the-spot story kind of stuck with me. I liked the idea of a fairly standard War of the Worlds/alien visitation story told from a wildly different perspective. The resulting first draft of the short story was written without a lot of research into actual coyotes, just trying to get the structure down.
What was immediately obvious from that first exploratory effort was that it very much wanted to be a story about communication. The primary difference in writing from the perspective of non-human animals was that I was faced with a choice: I could either anthropomorphize them to the point where they had conversations just like humans, or I would have to find a way to construct their dialogue so that it felt unique.
I tried a number of different approaches. I had a draft with barely any dialogue at all, trying to convey the whole thing with just the protagonist, Jeydi’s, inner monologue. When it was clear this was insufficient to get any relationship tension, I tried working with a version of the coyotes’ dialogue that was devoid of any actual context. It was intent; emotion, and that was it. With some regret, I had to expand to add some simple sentences. Hamstringing the dialogue in that way still put too much burden on the exposition.
Once the format was done I had to research coyotes to make sure their depiction in the story would at least pass the smell test, and then I re-drafted quite a few times before even attempting to send it out to markets. It gathered a lot of rejections. A lot of them—nearly all, really—were variations of “this isn’t right for us” or “not what we’re looking for.” And I understand that. It’s a peculiar story. The SF elements are, ultimately, pretty thin and where present they’re (intentionally) formulaic. It was always going to have to strike just the right editor, possibly even in a particular moment or mood.
Late in 2016, I sent it to Leading Edge magazine. Some of my stuff is edgier than they prefer, so I’d never ventured a submission before. Shortly after that submission, I started 200 CCs, a project which took up most of my time for about a year, and then in 2018 I basically ran out of gas on writing and submitting. Hit a hard wall, a collision from which I haven’t, as of this writing, recovered from. As a result, any outstanding submissions were essentially forgotten about, presumed rejections.
So it was total surprise when I received the acceptance notification. The notification also included information about the editorial process which they said could include some rewrites. That genuinely worried me because I’d been so unplugged from my writing for so long I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do a story I wrote over three years ago when I was at the peak of my regular writing regimen any sort of justice now.
Fortunately the editorial team at Leading Edge led by editor-in-chief Abigail Miner was nothing short of revelatory. I’ve had the good fortune to work with amazing editors so far when publishing short fiction, but in all honesty, when I daydreamed what working with an editorial group would be like prior to any of that experience, it looked almost exactly like the collaboration between Leading Edge’s staff and myself on Coyotia. Because honestly, the draft they accepted was not a publication-ready piece. I’m eternally grateful to them for seeing the potential in there and helping me tease out what the story ought to be because most markets and editors wouldn’t do that, for very good reason. A lot of stories I saw when I was editing 200 CCs had enormous potential, but I couldn’t accept everything that was maybe going to be good with X amount of additional work (much of it on my part in that context as the editor). So much quality writing comes to markets that it’s not a matter of rejecting only the garbage, almost all of it is rejecting stuff that just isn’t quite there yet, whether it could be eventually or not. It’s an embarrassment of riches.
To put into context how much work went into Coyotia to get it from accepted submission to the piece you can read in Issue 74, consider the following:
- The submitted document was about 6,300 words; the final publication is just north of 7,000 words
- During the editing phase, in addition to the 10% word count bump, the whole thing was updated with edits on nearly every page at least twice
- The entire ending was modified; originally Faunzzir became the pack leader, not Jeydi
- Conservatively speaking, the editorial team suggested over 150 specific edits
- Despite quick turnarounds from all parties, it took a month and a half to complete the editing
- A lot of the changes were not simple line edits, I adjusted thematic elements, re-wrote action sections and blocking, developed foreshadowing that wasn’t originally there (or was outdated once the ending was altered), re-wrote a significant number of sentences for clarity, and we even carefully discussed formatting and background info that doesn’t appear anywhere in the story itself.
And the entire experience was simply wonderful. It really cemented in my mind the idea that the developmental phase of crafting a story is the most enjoyable, the part I find most appealing. Not that I’m clear about how I get an agent or an editor who sees sufficient value in my writing to help me tease the best work out of my brain on a regular basis, but I think it’s the goal I ought to be striving for.
After all the editing work was done there was still one more surprise: it wasn’t until just before the actual publication that I was able to see the absolutely stunning artwork by Carol Wellart, whose black and white interior pieces would have been enough to make me giddy, but then the stunning cover piece based on Coyotia was just next level amazing.
The upshot is that this was really a remarkable experience and I couldn’t be more grateful to Leading Edge for their generosity and guidance which resulted in a story I’m quite proud of and is better in its published form than I ever expected it to be.