First Appeared: Bastion
Also Appears In: The Centropic Oracle (free audio, read by Charly Thompson)
Published: September 1, 2014
Byline: Paul Hamilton
Edited by: R. Leigh Hennig
Permanent Links: weightlessbooks.com; amazon.com
Content: Rated PG-13: Thematic Elements, Rude Language (audio version is PG for thematic elements)
Behind The Story
Sometimes a story has to be coaxed into being. There’s a sketchy initial concept, then an aborted attempt at a draft; perhaps a rough character outline gets mulled over, or a few scene ideas loosely related to the concept are tried, abandoned, and eventually something like a setting is hastily applied. Another idea is pulled out of the scrapbook, re-worked to fit alongside the original; more drafts, several characters merge into one, a few endings are tried. It takes a ton of time and effort.
Sometimes a story practically falls out of a writer’s head.
The Custody Of Memory was like the latter. The original inspiration? This opening sentence pair:
We couldn’t agree on which day to do the laundry when we were married.
Now we’re expected to agree on which child we’re going to remember?
That’s it. That’s all I had. They popped into my mind without context.
From that, I brain dumped a very short story (only slightly over the flash fiction guidelines) in the span of maybe forty minutes. Note, I’m not a particularly fast writer (I’m not even a very fast typist). And really, that’s all it took, resulting in the core characters, their relationships, and most of the significant plot points which would remain intact through the revision process.
Now, that first draft was quite similar the finished product, except that it was more slipstream than science fiction. Notably, it didn’t take place in the future and the characters were all squarely human. The problem with that execution turned out to be that it was very reminiscent of the film The Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. A movie I like very much, but wasn’t really trying to reference or pay homage to. I mean, I knew I was treading into similar territory, but I wanted my own spin on it.
So, I made everyone in the story robots. At the time, I joked about it on Twitter:
#writetip Robots fix all plotting problems.
— Paul Hamilton (@ironsoap) January 3, 2014
But in this case that one change cemented several of the elements that I think made the piece as a whole come together. And it didn’t take much alteration to execute. These are, after all, very human-like robots who do a lot of human-y things. But in particular it allowed me to put just a sentence or two about the nature of memory from a removed perspective that I think added a particular moment of poignancy to the ending right when the otherwise fairly lighthearted narrative needed it.
When it seemed like the story was basically ready, I shipped it to a pro-paying magazine and it got shortlisted up to the editor-in-chief. That editor eventually passed on it, but when my very next submission to Bastion resulted in another trip up the ladder, I started thinking it had a pretty good chance at getting picked up. After about a week, Bastion’s editor, R. Leigh Hennig, sent me an email saying they really liked the story but felt it had a fatal flaw. Namely, the reason for the memories being treated as assets wasn’t clear enough. Basically he was asking, “Why couldn’t they both have a copy?” He suggested a few ways it might be technologically necessary.
In retrospect, this flaw was probably an artifact from the earliest draft as a slipstream piece. Dividing up human memories is a weird construct, but there’s no more reason to get into the why than there is to get into the how in that case. But once you start talking robots and (presumably) digital memories, the rationale starts to become suspect. I responded to Mr Hennig saying I didn’t think the tech angle would work. In my head, there were too many narrative gymnastics necessary to try and explain why married robots had shared digital memories and why they would ever be scarce in any way. But in among Mr Hennig’s spitballing was the word “licensing” which triggered an idea for me and got me thinking about the value of experiences in an always recorded, forever archived, instantly retrievable world. I replied suggesting I could use a licensing angle and Mr Hennig agreed I should try that. Plus it allowed me to use the pun, “Marriage License Agreement.”
My re-worked version wasn’t drastically different, but the scene where Templeton gets exasperated and more or less tells Marvin to grow up was expanded slightly. I turned it around in a day and sent it back. A couple days later, Mr Hennig replied with probably the nicest thing anyone has said (professionally) about my writing to date: “…it would be a crime for this to go unpublished.” Maybe a bit of hyperbole, but the sentiment is kind of one of those rare moments where I thought, yeah okay, maybe I’m getting better at this.
The final edits were all very minor but there was a learning moment in them where it was suggested that one of my British spellings (“apologise” I believe it was) be shifted back to the American version. The story always took place in London, and I had thought as kind of an interesting touch I would write it as if a British author had, using their spellings and such. The obvious problem with that is I’m not a British author. In looking back over the piece during this late stage of back and forth with my editor, I found several other word choices (I call it a “trash bin” instead of a “rubbish bin,” for example) and Mr Hennig reminded me that there are lots of other differences such as quotation mark usage and so on. So the idea was abandoned. I looked in a copy of a Neil Gaiman book I own—Mr Gaiman being British but the edition of the book I have being published in the US—and noted that even though he probably spells them “realise” and “colour,” my edition had all American spellings. Note that these stories never suffer from being set in England (when they are, of course) but carrying spellings I’m accustomed to, which I think goes to show that establishing setting through formatting tricks is probably never a good idea.
For the record, though? I much prefer the British/Canadian spellings of words and wish there was a way I could get away with using them that didn’t make me look like a pretentious tool.
In any case, the one thing that stood out the most to me during this particular acceptance process is how unguardedly enthusiastic Bastion is to carry my story. From the fact that they found a plot hole in it but gave me the opportunity to fix it to the number of times they’ve reiterated how much they like it, everything about the process has given me the impression they see genuine merit in my work. I felt like Bastion was more than happy to pay me for my story.
Friends, let me tell you how much that means to a writer.
In an endeavor where it sometimes feels like it takes almost everything you have just to get people—and I don’t mean strangers, even, I’m talking about all people—to read something you’ve created, regardless of cost, it’s hard to remember that the thing you’re doing does have merit. That it indeed carries value.
In 2017, the publication rights having reverted to me, I started submitting the piece again for reprint. Bastion had, by that point, sadly gone on a hiatus that seemed like it would be indefinite, and I was having trouble making progress on new stories and getting unpublished work accepted. So it seemed like a good time to revisit some old favorites. After a few attempts, I got an acceptance from a new audio-format publication, The Centropic Oracle.
Interestingly, they had an issue with a specific faux-future word. For iTunes ratings purposes, I had submitted a version of the story that was a little cleaner (the original story had a few mild invectives that I tweaked). I knew there was going to be a difference in the word-for-word text of what appeared in Bastion versus what appears in TCO to begin with so I didn’t really sweat the word change, but it fascinated me to see a case example where one authorial choice can trip up a certain reader or subset of readers while others shine it on with no mention at all.
In any case, I think the audio version came out terrific; in particular the effect used to simulate Marvin’s stuttering was brilliant. I really liked seeing the story appear in a different format. I’d already had a previous story done in multiple formats, but this was the first time going print-to-audio. The whole experience is such a kick, in fact, it inspired me to pick up the pace on submitting to foreign markets that translate stories. I think seeing one of my stories in another language would be just a thrill.