The Children of Winter

This piece appeared as an afterward to my story “The Children of Winter” on its publication in the Czechoslovakian SF magazine Ikarie.

I wrote the first draft of the “Children of Winter” in two days way back in February 1997. It was one of those stories which, once the writing was under way, slipped out painlessly. But its gestation period was far from painless.

All my stories begin as vague notions, and often as more than one vague notion. I often come up with a setting for a story, or an idea, or a character, and think about them individually for a period of time. Sometimes a setting suggests characters, or the other way around. Often ideas – scientific extrapolations – suggest characters or settings. After that it’s a question of wrestling with the plot, working out the character’s motivations – the things they want, and why they want them – and coming up with a form that will satisfy the reader in terms of excitement, intrigue, plot twists, ideas and resolution. This can take weeks or months.

For a long time I’d had a vague idea to write a story set on a planet with an exaggeratedly elliptical orbit. I also wanted to write a story about an ice-bound city, and one of my favourite types of SF tale is the crashlanded starship story. These three elements came together, in the winter of 1996, to suggest the background for what would become “The Children of Winter”. I then tried to work out what type of society might function on a planet which was subjected to extreme conditions of summer and winter – especially as that society was not native but was formed from the descendants of a crashed starship. At some point while considering the planet’s society, it came to me that some people – the children – might live until adolescence without experiencing summer, without seeing their sun as anything but a distant star in the night sky. By now the story was coming together. I had a setting, a society, and I knew that I wanted to write about a group of children – The Children of Winter of the title. All I needed to do then was to develop the characters and construct a compelling plot which would act as the frame for the story.

(A digression: I am not a Hard Science Fiction writer. I don’t particularly like reading Hard SF, and I’ve never been a fan of the so-called Greats – Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke etc. I find their work lacking not only literary merit but any understanding of what it is to be human. In so many Hard SF novels, the characterisation is neglected, pushed to the background so that science and scientific extrapolation takes centre stage. This to me defeats the purpose of literature – to write about the human condition – and terribly dates a piece of writing. If you’re going to write a Hard SF novel, then put credible human beings in it, so that in twenty or thirty year’s time, or whenever, when the science is seen as absurd, the novel can be read for its characterisation. Give me Simak and Dick over Heinlein and Clarke any day.)

If I were to think, before sitting down to begin the story, about the complexities of actually doing so, I might never write anything at all. Fortunately, once the groundwork is done, I trust in my subconscious to write the story for me.

My writing methods are simple. Once the ideas for the story have built up to such a point where they demand to be written, I sit down in the morning with a first line in my head, start typing, and a couple of hours later resurface and find, much to my surprise and delight, that my trusted subconscious has written a couple of thousand words of serviceable prose that contains much that I did not know I would write. I do the same in the afternoon, and again in the evening. After a couple of days I have a long short story in the bag.

I recall being happy with the first draft of “The Children of Winter”, which was not an unusual state of affairs, as I’m happy with most of the first drafts of my stories. The dissatisfaction comes much later, when the first flush of creation is replaced with the ability to view the work with objectivity. My usual method of rewriting a story is to leave it as long as possible, hopefully a month or two, and then to come back to it and cut and chop and condense ruthlessly. Then I send it to fellow SF writer Keith Brooke for his expert advice, after which I rewrite the story again and start looking for a suitable market.

“The Children of Winter” was rejected by the first magazine I submitted it to (an American magazine) as the editor was not convinced by the science of the story. (Which criticism I can take: I’d rather my work be criticised on scientific grounds than for any objections about characterisation, readability or prose, etc). David Pringle, the editor of Interzone, accepted the story and it was published in issue 163, January 2001. The following year it won the BSFA award for the best short story of the year. Since then it has been translated into Finish, Spanish, and now Czech. (In 2006 it appeared as the lead story in my collection Threshold Shift, published by Golden Gryphon in the US, nine years after the story was first rejected in that country).

Recently, unable to leave the story alone, I expanded and rewrote it as a short novel for teenagers. The novel followed the story pretty faithfully, though played down the love between Jen and Ki, and concentrated more on the adventure aspect inherent in the plot. It has yet to find a publisher.

One of the many delights of writing is being republished and translated, and I’m especially pleased to think that “The Children of Winter” will be published in the language of Karel Čapek and Josef Nesvadba, the former whose The Absolute at Large and War with the Newts I read and enjoyed in my twenties, while the latter’s In the Footsteps of the Abominable Snowman, introduced by Brian Aldiss, is one of the finest translated SF story collections to be published in Britain.

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