Bond Elam celebrates over a decade of appearing in Analog with the short story “Fine Tuning” in our March/April issue [on sale now]. Here, he explains why he had to unlearn the lessons he learned as a programmer to become a better writer.
Analog Editor: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
BE: I spent the last twenty years of my working life as a software developer—a heads-down programmer who was addicted to writing code. Anyone who’s told themselves that they’ll write just one more subroutine, only to find themselves still at the keyboard at 2:30 a.m. will know what I’m talking about. When I retired, my interest in programming only increased. I found AI so fascinating that I learned Python and began working through online tutorials covering various kinds of neural networks. My current story, “Fine Tuning,” is one of many that arose out of this fascination.
AE: Is this piece part of a greater universe of stories?
BE: Absolutely. It’s clear that artificial intelligence is going to play an increasingly important role in the evolution of society. The media tends to focus on the most dramatic possibilities, like killer bots running amok, but I think humankind is far more likely to self-destruct than find itself overrun by killer robots. One of the huge issues that the media doesn’t seem to consider is motivation. Human beings are driven by instincts programmed into our genes—the need to survive, to reproduce, to get our genes into the next generation. These instincts are mediated by the hormones and neurotransmitters our DNA evolved to push us in the direction it wants us to go. AIs and bots will surpass us when it comes to intelligence, but we’re the ones who will program in their motivations—at least initially. That, I think is the crux of the real problem, and that is one of the things that I want to write about. The possibilities are both important to our survival and nearly limitless. And they are a lot of fun.
AE: What made you think of Analog for this story?
BE: I think Analog readers are genuinely interested in science and technology, and in the impact they will have on our future. They want a good story, a story that’s entertaining and pulls them along. But they also want it to be about something important to individuals or to humankind as a whole. This is also what I’m interested in, so Analog seemed the logical place to send it.
AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?
BE: Politics used to impact my writing a lot, which was one of the reasons I couldn’t sell anything. When people pay good money for a science fiction magazine, they want to be entertained and, if they’re readers of Analog, they want to explore the implications of science and technology. They don’t want to read my take on the latest political events, even if I try to disguise them as science fiction.
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
BE: I am fascinated by AI and the nature of human consciousness. What is it? Is it real? Is it an emergent property of some deeper process? Research has shown that we make decisions and initiate actions before we become aware of them. That is, our non-conscious mind is doing the decision making and our conscious mind frequently only justifies our actions after the fact. Which suggests that we are not entirely what we think we are. I am equally fascinated by the underlying nature of reality. Over and over I read that time and space are not fundamental properties of reality, that they are emergent properties of whatever is really going on. I find that impossible to get my mind around but really fun to explore.
AE: What is your process?
BE: I start with a single idea, usually a single sentence, and keep expanding and expanding until it becomes an outline, then I add snippets of description and dialogue, and finally it turns into a first draft. That’s the hardest part—creating the first draft. As I rewrite draft after draft, it actually becomes fun. Unless, of course, I discover that I’m headed down the wrong path. Then I have to start over. Ironically, the final story frequently has nothing to do with the single sentence with which I started.
AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
BE: For me, writers’ block is almost always a problem with character motivation. I want a character to do something, or I want something to happen in a story, and the action that has occurred up to that point simply doesn’t justify it. The problem is compounded by the fact that I frequently don’t realize what’s going wrong. The story just doesn’t seem to be coming together, and I can’t figure out why. I’ve learned to fall back on the advice of Elmore Leonard—if it doesn’t feel right, do it again.
AE: How did you break into writing?
BE: I didn’t break in. I struggled and struggled and struggled. A number of “how to” books say that you have to write a million words before you can get published. I only wish it were that simple. As a computer programmer my mind was—and is—geared to getting to a solution as quickly and efficiently as possible. That’s what makes an elegant solution in the world of application development. It doesn’t make for stories people want to read. It took me a long time to understand that people want to lose themselves in a story, intellectually and emotionally. I keep working on the skills that are necessary to provide that kind of experience.
AE: What are you reading right now?
BE: I subscribe to Analog, Asimov’s and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I also regularly download publications like Clarkesworld, Escape Pod, and Flash Fiction Online (I love short-shorts like Probability Zero). Mostly I focus on short stories, since that’s what I’m trying to get better at. I also read a lot of mysteries, especially those of crossover writers, like Bill Pronzini and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. And I like mainstream writers like Annie Proulx, though I have to be careful reading her, since I get so intimidated that I can’t write.
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
BE: As I understand it, a science fiction magazine typically receives nearly a thousand stories a month. Of these, the editor has to pick five—ten every two months. I suspect more than five or ten out of the thousand are actually publishable, which means you have to hit the right editor, on the right day, with what he thinks his magazine needs. (Remember, his or her career depends on making the best choices.) So in a way, you’re really playing a numbers game. But if you stick at it—and write absolutely killer first paragraphs—you will get there. Probably about a million words from now.