Giftwrapping an Idea

Most gifts are tangible things, items that occupy space and have weight. But writers tread the realm of visions and dreams, thoughts and imaginings. You can’t give those things as gifts, can you? Well…

Author Andrew Gudgel and I were exchanging gifts at holiday time a few years ago. He’d been talking (for well over a year) about a story idea he had. I thought it was wonderful and kept urging him to write the story. Instead, as a gift to me, he said, “You write it.”

There were some tangible things he also gave me, the notes he’d compiled while preparing to write the story. But the real gift was the idea, and he’d given it to me.

I know, I’ve blogged before that ideas are the easy part, the trivial part, the dime-a-dozen part, and I’ve said the hard part is actually scribbling down the story and polishing it until you can sell it.

Let me caveat that now. Some ideas are more valuable than others are. Some are gold. Some are more valuable to a writer other than the one who thought of them. Such was the case with Andrew’s idea; he sensed I loved it more than he did, and that I would not hesitate to run with it. For him, it was in the ‘I’ll get to it someday’ bin.

From Andrew’s idea came my story “After the Martians.” In partial payment to him, I named a character in the story after him. If you add the value of that to the value of whatever silly gift I gave him that year, you’d still fall far short of what he gave me. I was out-gifted, plain and simple.

As Andrew so eloquently put it in his blog: “’Ideas rot if you don’t do something with them,’ said the writer Edd Dumbill. I agree. By keeping a creative idea locked away in your head/on your hard-drive/in your notebooks, it’s not free to enrich the world. Think about it this way: you may be fated to conceive of the idea and to give birth to it, but not to be the one who raises it to maturity. That may be someone else’s task. So, if after a period of sober reflection, you come to the conclusion that you’re not going to make use of an idea, give it away—throw it to a creative friend, put it on your blog, launch it out into the public sphere—and give someone else the opportunity to enrich the world with it.”

For completeness, I should mention another, earlier example of giving an idea as a gift, though this still causes me anguish and shame.

Many years and several critique groups ago, I was in a group with Raymond (not his real name). Each month, Raymond contributed a new chapter of the novel he was writing. One day, we found out Raymond had died. I don’t recall the circumstances, whether illness or accident, but he was far too young.

I got a letter from his widow saying that in his final days, Raymond had told her he wanted me to finish his novel, and she was asking if I’d do that.

Wow. Tough dilemma. On one hand, I couldn’t refuse a request from the widow of a friend and fellow writer, could I? She wasn’t asking for that much—just complete the story he’d almost finished and send it out for publication. She wasn’t asking for a portion of the payments, if the novel made money.

On the other hand, I didn’t have the passion for the story that Raymond did. I didn’t think I could do it justice. The novel involved a plot and genre type that had already saturated the market. It didn’t seem to me that readers were begging for another such novel.

In the end, I turned down the offer, with regrets. Perhaps I should have taken it, but I didn’t. Raymond’s idea deserved a champion who cared about it as deeply as he had. I was not that writer.

As you can see, it is possible to get wrapping paper, ribbons, and bows around something as insubstantial as an idea, a whim. If you’re struggling to do it, and can’t quite figure out how to cut and enclose, fold and tape the darn thing, if you need an expert guide, call—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Recalling the Moment

When people ask, “how did you get the idea for that story?” it’s useful to be able to remember that exact instant when the lightning struck, when the light bulb glowed, when the muse whispered. For some of my stories, I can. For others, I have no idea.

People expect you to remember. They want to hear about the light bulb moment. After all, that’s a bit of a story in itself.

220px-Suzanne_Collins_David_Shankbone_2010Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games series, has a great story for how she came up with the idea for the first book in the series. As reported here, she was channel-surfing between a reality show involving a competition among young people, and some news coverage of a war. The two TV shows blurred in her mind, and she came up with her book idea. She also claims that the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, which she read at age eight, became the inspiration for the plot.

This is often how it happens. Two or more ideas get merged in your mind, and they can be widely separated in time. Some of these ideas could be something half-remembered from childhood.

On occasion, an entire story coming to a writer in a flash, so that it becomes a race to get it written down before the memory degrades. Other authors refine and mature a basic idea over time before they are ready to write. Whichever method you use, it’s still a good thing to write down the initial idea right after the bulb illuminates, perhaps in a daily journal. That way you’ll be ready when people ask.

What’s that you’re thinking? You’re wondering how I got the ideas for some of my recent stories? How nice of you to ask.

A Clouded Affair” came from a clash of two ideas. I was in a dieselpunk mood, having never written in that subgenre. Then I saw the call for stories for an anthology titled Avast, Ye Airships! Clearly, they wanted steampunk. What to do? How about a battle between a steampunk pirate and a dieselpunk pirate?

For “Time’s Deformèd Hand,” I was responding to a planned anthology of Steampunk Shakespeare stories. I wanted a lighter tale, so I reviewed the Bard’s comedies, and selected “A Comedy of Errors.” Clockpunk seemed a better fit than steampunk, so I went with that. While my story didn’t get picked for the anthology, it found a happier home as part of my What Man Hath Wrought series.

The Cometeers” is one story whose genesis I don’t recall. For some reason, I must have been thinking about save-the-Earth-from-destruction plot lines, and thought about how I could set such a story in the steampunk era.

Here’s a sneaky notion, to wrap things up. Since you won’t always recall the “ah-ha moment” when a story idea occurred to you, and since your zillions of fans will demand to know how it actually happened, it’s probably okay in this instance to make up a story. After all, you’re a fiction writer—making up stories is what you do. Moreover, who would say your explanation is wrong? Certainly not—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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You’re Perfect for This

Hold it right there.  Don’t move.  Though my computer’s connection with yours, I’m getting a sense of who would be the perfect writer for the story in your head.  Just a moment…wait…I’ve got it!

It’s you.

framefaceI suppose I needn’t have gone to all that trouble establishing the complex networked linkage between our computers.  It goes without saying  you’re unique.  No one else shares your exact experiences and passions.  For that story in your head that you think some real author ought to write, I can assure you, no one would write it like you.

Famous authors get this all the time—a fan, always a stranger, comes up and says, “I’ve got a great idea for the next story you should write.”  There are no recorded instances of the famous author replying, “Really?  Great!  You see, I was fresh out of ideas myself.  Tell me yours, and I’ll simply write the book.”

You’re the one who thought of the idea, borne from wherever your ideas come from.  You’re the one with the enthusiasm, the one for whom the story idea has intensity and meaning.  If your mind won’t let go of it, if you can sustain the passion for it, hold on to the wonder of it through the long hours of writing it all down, then and only then was it an idea worthy of becoming a story.  It really can’t be someone else’s story.

No one else in the world shares your craving, your yearning, to see that story in print.  You might be able to convey the plot idea to someone else, transmit the character outlines to somebody.  But the element you can’t transfer is the caring.  No one else will be as enthused about it as you.

Here’s a thought experiment.  Let’s give several famous authors the same assignment.  We give them each the same plot, same theme, same characters, and same setting.  You already know the outcome of this experiment; all the resulting stories will be different.  Somehow each author will have imbued his or her story with a special and unique flair, a style not shared with any other author.  Moreover, it’s quite possible that the resulting stories won’t be the best works any of those authors ever wrote; that’s because they were given the idea by someone else, and didn’t really own it.

Maybe you’ve never written a story since grade school, but with regard to that story idea of yours, no one is going to write it but you.  In fact, you’re the perfect person to write it.  Imagine the odds of that—a great idea occurs to the very person best suited to write the story.  I guess those odds aren’t so slim after all.

So abandon that notion of convincing “a real writer” to write your story. You do it!  After all, you’re perfect for the job.  Meanwhile, I know another writer who’d better get busy on his next story, and that’s—

                                                          Poseidon’s Scribe

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A File Full of Ideas

If you’re a writer, do you keep an “Ideas File?”  You might have a different name for it, but I’m speaking of a single place where you store ideas for future stories.

The philosopher Socrates opposed writing anything down, whether it was a good story idea or not.  He had his reasons, but it occurs to me the world would never have heard of Socrates if his student Plato hadn’t written down much of what the great philosopher said.  Similarly, you could trust your memory to retain all the story ideas that occur to you.  Or you could type them or write them by hand and store them for later retrieval.  It seems obvious that, as writers, we’re not adherents to Socrates’ school of thought in this regard.

Ideas FileIt doesn’t matter what form your Ideas File takes, whether it’s an electronic file, a paper one, or a list on a white board.  The important attributes are that it’s available to you for storage of new ideas and for later retrieval.

The ideas you store there will likely be based on flashes of insight you get when your mind is otherwise idle; when you’re commuting, or cleaning the house, or taking a shower.  These idea sparks can also occur based on reading books, magazines, or newspapers; or from listening to radio or audiobooks; or from watching a movie or TV show.  Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games trilogy, said she got the idea for the series’ first novel from the juxtaposition of two TV shows while flipping channels.

The entries in your file can be basic story ideas, plot layouts, character descriptions, images of settings, even just metaphors or clever turns of phrase.  The file can contain a combination of all of these.  The file can be organized or not; order doesn’t matter until the file gets quite large.

Your attitude toward your Ideas File is important too.  Don’t worry if the number of entries grows and grows and you never seem to be using any of the file’s ideas in your stories.  Don’t berate yourself if you look back over early ideas and they appear stupid or juvenile.  It should give you a good feeling to peruse the file from time to time, especially when you’re stuck for an idea.  That’s what it’s for.

Let’s look at things from the point of view of these ideas, the thoughts you’re putting into the file.  They each start life in your mind.  At that moment you’re enthused about them; they take on a sure-fire, best-seller glow in your mind.  You write or type the idea and put it in your folder, only because you are in the middle of another project and can’t flesh this idea into a story right now.

The idea then sits there in your file for a while, maybe years, along with other ideas.  It waits there for you to come across it again.  When you do, the idea might look worse than it did before, or the same or even better.  Sometimes the idea appears to lack something, but combining it with another idea lifts it to greatness.  Sometimes a poor idea sparks an unrelated good one, for reasons you may never understand.

As for my own Ideas File…well, there’s little point in telling you anything specific about it.  I’ve kept it for decades now and its entries span the spectrum from idiotic to pretty good.  If I described my file or its entries, I’m afraid it might cause you to construct your file in some way that doesn’t fit you.

If you’d leave a comment, I’d love to hear about whether you think such an Ideas File would be useful to you.  If you already have one, has it helped you?  While I await the deluge of comments, I’ll thumb through the files of—

                                                               Poseidon’s Scribe

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Donkey and Elephant Stories

donkey elephantIs it wise for a fiction writer to inject personal political beliefs into his or her stories?  Or is the question moot; is all fiction in some sense political?  Let us roam with elephants and donkeys.

Arguably, both politics and good fiction are about ideas.  The ideas explored by politics surround questions like:  How shall people be governed?  What is the role of government?  What is the nature of power? Can we arrange governing systems for maximum benefit to all?

Fiction also deals with ideas, though these are not limited to political ideas.  Often they boil down to basic questions of philosophy:  What is beauty?  What is truth?  What is justice?  What happens after death?

But my real question is whether writers should make their political leanings obvious in their stories.  Some authors certainly do.  L. Neil Smith is very libertarian.  Robert Heinlein, too, leaned libertarian.   Isaac Asimov leaned to the liberal side, though not blatantly so.  Ayn Rand was passionate about her political philosophy, which she felt was new and different enough to have its own name—Objectivism.

In my view, there are dangers in making your political views obvious in your fiction.  For one thing, you can turn off at least half of your potential audience.  Those who disagree with your political stance won’t read more than one of your books.

If your intent is to persuade, consider this.  Have you ever heard anyone say something like this after a political argument: “Thank you.  I’ve come around to your side, based on the strength of your logic.  I see now that I’ve been voting the wrong way my whole life.  Thanks again, for helping me see the light.”  Almost nobody changes his party affiliations that easily.

Another danger in overt political fiction is predictability, and therefore dullness.  When the good guys believe as the writer does, and the bad guys are of the other political party, the reader knows who will win.  The reader can feel like she’s being preached to.  Clever and rare is the writer who can represent the opposite side in a fair and convincing way.

NightOfJanuary16thIt’s my view that Ayn Rand achieved this in her stage play “Night of January 16th.” The play occurs, for the most part, in a courtroom.  Near the end, the judge dismisses the jury to their room to render a decision. At that point it’s announced to the audience that they are the jury and will be allowed to vote guilty or not guilty.  (Either that or twelve audience members are selected at the start to play the jury.)  A vote of not guilty represents a tilt toward Objectivism, and a vote of guilty means the opposite.  There are two endings to the play, and the actors perform the one voted on by the “jury.”  I understand that, in all the plays performances since it premiered in 1935, the ‘guilty’ and ‘not guilty’ outcomes occur about equally often.

My recommendation, if you’re set on writing overt political fiction, is to (1) do so in a subtle, metaphorical way without preaching to your readers, (2) poke fun at or lambaste all politicians equally, focusing on the separation between politicians and the rest of us, or (3) be as even-handed as possible, with bad guys and good guys on both sides.

What are your thoughts?  No, not about the last election—I mean about the prudence of putting politics in your fiction!  Leave a nonpartisan comment and let me know.  Steering well clear of donkeys and elephants, I’m—

                                                   Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 3, 2013Permalink

A Trip to the Idea Store

At the risk of upsetting beginning writers who agonize over figuring out what to write about, I’ll admit this is one problem I do not have.  Whatever other deficiencies I have as a writer, a lack of ideas is not among them.  I’m awash in ideas, flooded with them.  Not bragging, since it’s a curse in some ways.

Unfortunately, like some star baseball pitcher who’s a “natural” at the game but can’t pass on his technique to others because he can’t describe what he does, I’m not sure I can put into words just where my ideas come from.  For me, it’s just plucking from the Idea Tree—they’re free for the taking, and all around me.  You, on the other hand, might have to visit the Idea Store, and it will cost you.  I think I can at least give you the store’s address.

First, let’s clarify.  An idea is not a story.  An idea is not even a plot.  The idea for Moby Dick might have been something like, “I’ll write about a sea captain obsessed with hunting a particular whale.”  The idea for the Harry Potter series might have been, “I’ll follow the adventures and maturation of a young boy who’s attending a school for wizards.”  Both reasonably good ideas, but my point is that it’s not the ideas that make those books great.  The skill put into the writing of the books, the fleshing out of the ideas, matters much more.  So don’t think your idea has to be unprecedented, astounding, or unique.  Your story idea can be simple, mundane, overdone, even stupid, but if the story you write based on that idea is well crafted, it will sell.

I’ve found that most story ideas consist of two elements that I’ll call the ‘seed’ and the ‘twist.’  The seed is something really basic, perhaps something from everyday life, or something in the news, or something you read in a book or magazine.  For Herman Melville, his seed might have been the sea captain.  For J. K. Rowling, the seed might have been a boy going through school.

The twist is some adjustment you make to the seed, some new way of looking at it.  It’s where you examine the seed and ask, “but what if—?”  Turn the seed over in your mind and alter it in different ways.  “What if my sea captain was obsessed with a particular whale?” “What if the school was for educating wizards?”

Here are a couple of examples from my own writing.  For “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” the seed was a steam-powered ship.  The twist came when I realized that the power of steam was known in ancient times but never put to any use other than with amusing toys.  What if—?  For my story, “Within Victorian Mists,” I set out to write a steampunk romance, and I knew I wanted it set in the Victorian era.  I’d recalled reading somewhere that lasers were invented late; that is, the basic materials had been available earlier but nobody had hit on the concept, even accidentally.  Moreover, holograms are an extension of laser technology.  What if—?

Story ideas need not involve technology, of course.  Often the seed for a story is some previous proven story line by a historical author, or a successful genre.  The twist is simply to bring the story up to date, put it in a different setting, turn a tragedy into a comedy (or vice versa), or tell the same story from the point of view of a different character.  You can even take an event from a classic story that seems unlikely or too coincidental and make that event happen differently, then explore how that would turn out.

This idea of seeds and twists for story ideas is akin to the concept of TRIZ in engineering problem-solving.  Genrich Altshuller reviewed Soviet patent applications and realized that after a technological breakthrough occurred, he could predict the follow-on patent applications that would arrive.  They were all twists on the basic seed technology.  How many times have we seen this in the electronics industry?  Think of VCRs, PDAs, PCs, etc.  The first gadget to hit the market is large, boxy, and black, with rectangular buttons.  The follow-ons become smaller and smaller, then come in different colors and more stylish packaging.

Back to story ideas.  In a later post, I’ll talk about a technique for improving your creativity.  In the meantime, try taking some simple seed ideas and giving them a twist.  Write down your ideas, even the stupid ones, because they can often spark a good idea.  That list is what you just bought at the Idea Store for the price of a little thought.  Earlier, I said you can write a good story from a stupid idea.  That’s true, but it’s a low-percentage shot.  I suggest writing from your best ideas first.

Good luck, and feel free to write to the Scribe if this blog post worked or didn’t work for you.

Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 20, 2011Permalink