A.T. Sayre on “Across The River”

A.T. Sayer goes into the writing process that led to his novelette, “Across The River,” and the importance of the messages within. Read in our [july/august issue, on sale now

Me again. I know, I know. You’re thinking, “wasn’t this jackass just here?” And yes, yes I was. Back in the March/April issue the editors of this fine magazine kindly published my short story “The Big Day,” a great, little compact story, which was hailed by one reviewer as being “the right length for its premise.”

And here I am again, not even half a year later, gracing the pages of one of the most storied magazines that exists in this thing of ours one more time.

Yeah, I don’t get it either. All I can do is shrug and cash the checks.

This time I’m in with a novelette. An accidental one, of course, like I secretly suspect most of them are. When I first set out to get this one down, I thought, pretty basic idea, straight forward. A story definitely worth telling, but still, not too complicated. This one will be short and sweet, 3500 words at most.

And then I started writing. And the story kept growing. I added new aspects and ideas to it as I went. Expanded a little on some of the ideas. Added some commentary on the theme. I was really, really getting into it. And the story kept getting longer. When I finally wrote that last sentence and had my first draft, I checked the scrivener statistics to see how long it had ended at. I already knew I’d missed the story length I had in mind when starting, that was obvious, but I was so into the work I wasn’t sure by how much.

It was 9,500 words.

<writer sighs, walks into the kitchen, grabs a spray bottle, sprays himself in the face>
<writer sprays himself again right on the nose> 

I did pare it down a bit from that first draft, and I shaved about 500 words off of it. I had thought I’d need to do a lot more, cut it to at least half. But as I read it over with that ruthless, cutting eye, I found there was very little that I felt could be excised without causing damage to what I had. Take out A, then B makes no sense, and if you take out B too, then C is pointlessly adrift. And if C doesn’t work, then what’s the point of the story at all? 

I fully admit that I am never as ruthless with my darlings as I could be, even should be. And that fact was right in the front of my thinking as I tried to get this one down. I was fully committed to slicing off whole chunks of this one to get it down to that originally intended length. But I just didn’t see much in this one that was to me unnecessary, or superfluous, or otherwise could be cut. I’m sure an editor would disagree. Maybe in someone else’s hands it would have been 3,500 words–or even shorter–but it turns out at the end of the day, I liked this story long. And more than that, I really, really, like this story. And now it’s in Analog, so it seems I’m not the only one.

“I found there was very little that I felt could be excised without causing damage to what I had. Take out A, then B makes no sense, and if you take out B too, then C is pointlessly adrift. And if C doesn’t work, then what’s the point of the story at all?” 

I’m pretty pleased of how well I feel I captured the mentality of the freelancing life in it. The kind of things that someone thinks when they are making their way through life like that, the kind of things they have to deal with, the kind of choices they have to make. I’ve been living it for a while now myself. As comfortable as it can be to effectively be your own boss and be able to make your own decisions, it can also be fairly terrifying at times, because you’re your own boss and you have to make your own decisions. And while the specter of eminent doom isn’t always right in front of you, it’s always kind of peeking at you from around the corner, no matter how flush you are at any moment or how many gigs you have lined up. Those can always go away.

The other part of this story that I think comes off really well is the way Jules relates to the consumer world. They look their nose down at it, think they are better than all those who swim in it. But creating content for all that product is literally what they do for a living. Their life is not only directly dependent on it, but they are also no more immune to the siren song of the shiny new thing as anyone else. And really, that’s kind of what I think is true of all of us. We don’t all work in advertising, of course, or anything even remotely close to it, but the connection all of us in the first world have to the world of materialism and money is far stronger than we ever like to admit. So much so that many go out of their way to pretend otherwise. How many times have you seen someone go off on the evil corporations in a Facebook post typed out on a Mac Book pro?

This isn’t a story of high stakes. There’s no galactic war, no spaceship battles off the shoulder of Orion, no struggles against an oppressive establishment, no lives hang in the balance on the outcome of the tale. It’s just an ordinary day in the (near) future of a normal person, and the important yet still fairly mundane life they lead in it. And for me, that is exactly what this story should be. Not everything needs running laser pistol fights. I remember in the forward to a Philip K. Dick collection I once read him talking about (which I hope I’m accurately paraphrasing here) the stories that interested him the most were the ones about the regular person and how the machinations of the world events effect them, not the ones about the leaders who effect the world. That is perhaps a bit of hyperbole (again, assuming my memory of his words is accurate), because he had his share of Palmer Eldritch and Floyd Jones types in his work. And I do too. But sometimes the idea is just not served with the high drama, and needs something more down to Earth. Even in science fiction. “Across the River” is an example of that.

All of that is very true. I really love this story. 

But if I’m being truly honest, the thing in this story that I feel is my greatest accomplishment, the one thing that really brings a smile to my face about what I have done in this work, is that I worked a reference to The Monkees into it. And a fairly deep cut reference too. Something that I am almost absolutely certain no one has ever done in the pages of Analog, or Astounding before it. And that is a great pride that I will take to my grave.

A.T. Sayre is a New Hampshire native who now lives in New York City. When not having panic attacks about the state of his bank account and when he’ll get his next job, he writes speculative fiction stories that have previously appeared in Utopia Science FictionTheaker’s Quarterly, and Analog. You can see his full bibliography at https://www.atsayre.com/fiction

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