Writing Process — “Zelzer Stiff”

I want to talk about how I wrote “Zelzer Stiff.”

The reason? It’s an odd, little piece that is both a successful execution of my idea and far better than I intended.

As a science-fiction writer, this is a rare event. Often we shoot for the stars and bounce off the moon. But my hope is that by logging the process, I will gain some insight, and fellow writers something useful.

Brainthumping

Idea, first. As a writer, I operate under the Laws of Association. This principle works like the conceit of a poem (where two unlike things are compared in metaphor, becoming the piece’s central image), constantly linking the unfamiliar into surprising meditations of meaning.

My role is to extend comparisons, contrasts, and contiguities to their logically absurd conclusions.

How does this look in practice? I knew I wanted to write about guns, about the limit of a gun, about the promotion of the Second Amendment, about the moral circle of who ‘should’ own a gun and who is disqualified. In my mindful maelstrom, I connected this to robots, to android rights, to the possible inability for machine intelligence to prioritize, empathize, and detect subtlety like a human being,  My love of the western pulled in the image of a robot sauntering into a bar, packing a revolver.

All of these thoughts became notes on a page, including other images, impressions, strains, threads, solutions. Conflicts emerged. I wanted the robot to misuse their trust; to misread the situation and end lives unjustly. Yet, what better logical and absurd conclusion to a robot-rights story than an android committing a massacre but justifying the action with a data-dump?

Outline Time

I love it when ideas appear like pokémon in tall grass, but we don’t always have time to roam. Instead, I carefully and intentionally construct my narrative outline. The idea is to make each step a logical continuation of the last one, and to slip in natural character development. Readers might not intuit the architecture, but they’ll want something anthropocentric (i.e. gossip about the human condition—good, bad, or weird) and easy aesthetic (something simple to read).

With “Zelzer Stiff,” this started as a basic summary. Something like this:

Second Amendment has given robot’s rights. Robot with a gun walks into a bar. Confronted by a bigot. Kills the bigot, bartender, and anyone else who flinches (“offensive actions”). Robot uploads cam-feed and data to the police, gets a drink.

Now I needed to decide my medium. I knew what I wanted to write, but how should I write it? Prose? Poetry? A newspaper article? A story some couple thousand words? Flash?

I chose the drabble-esque, worried too much development might reduce shock. Pithy over the prolonged.

Daft Draft

I wrote the piece, following the preconceived plot with the poetry of words. My focus was on specific details. Done poorly, abstraction kills good literature. I wanted my reader ferociously engaged in the intensity of my images. There was a bit of internal debate about exposition. I decided to insert the historical account (“…the landmark decision to include artificial humans in the Second Amendment”) between a reference to processing speeds (foreshadowing?) and conflict (a robot with a gun).

The rest was matter of opinion. My original names were conventional. Place-holders. I decided to replace them with bizarre concoctions like “Kghoshi” alongside quips like “You packing, tin can?” (When, as a writer, do you ever get the opportunity to use the overused in an interesting way?). My best lines were developed in the vivid haze of brain thumping. The rest, intentionally, unintentionally, while drafting.

Tittles (I mean Titles)

Serious thought should go into a title, or you will be tempted to keep your initial project title. Suddenly, the weird and wonderful is stunted under “The Dragon” or “The Hunt.”

Personally, I have titles I am happy with (Black Bear on White Paper) and titles I’m unhappy with (The Spheres) and titles that were pragmatic but not poetic (Flexible Groups). My story House Divided continues to frustrate me because it’s (a) the perfect moniker for a piece about a suburban home split between two dimensions, and (b) its too Abraham Lincoln-esque.

For this piece, I chose random over revealing.

Finally, the result:

“Zelzer Stiff” by Desmond White

The android was making them all uncomfortable with its Zelzer Stiff eyeing them from its hip. It’d only been forty point three seconds since the landmark decision to include artificial humans in the Second Amendment and this son of a manufacturing plant had just walked into the Rig & Rattle with a laspistol holstered, twinkling. Kghoshi—a real bastard on a good day—splashed his drink on silver chestmetal and said, “You packing, tin can?” The bartender—a saint on a bad day—put an arm on the droid: “C’mon, now, let’s not do this.” The move was registered as an offensive action and the android shot the bartender between his eyebrows. Kghoshi’s finger moved a centimeter toward his gun when a second shot put a red dot on his forehead. The men in the bar leaped to their feet. Offensive actions. The men in the bar toppled over chairs and tables. By the time the android reached the counter, empty now of breathing souls, a feed of reaction times, facial registers, psycho-prints—all pointing to self-defense—had been submitted to the authorities.

As you can see, there are many arbitrary decisions. The decision to keep everything in one paragraph. The decision to use a whimsical name for the gun that also sounds like a cocktail. The em dash couplet describing Kghoshi and the bartender. The repetition of “offensive actions.” Flourishes as fickle as free verse.

I would argue aesthetic can be like that, can seek music without meaning, as long as the foundation is laid rationally.

Was I successful? I think so. Others do too. Some, not. The final step:

Move on, my dude

Don’t dwell. Write your piece. Get it to where you’re 85% happy with it. Then write something new. Experiment. Exercise. You will fail. You’ll succeed. Tuck away the failures, submit successes, and keep lying, dreaming, writing.