Alex Kane taught me an important lesson at Chicon, one that is not just true a huge cons, but applicable to smaller ones as well. If you come across someone you’ve wanted to meet for a while, don’t say “Hey, we should grab coffee at some point”, and then move on. Seize the opportunity or it may not happen. And don’t do it more than once, that is just dumb!
I’d been reading Alex’s blog for quite a while before I got to Chicago, so I recognised his name when I ran into him in the audience at a panel I was on. His blog had become one of my favourites on my soon to be gone Google Reader list (damn you, Google), so it’s no surprise to me that he has been added to the roster of guest bloggers on the Amazing Stories relaunch blog. He is also a very talented writer, and someone to keep an eye on as he continues to build on his achievements.
He has written a great post today, one I am sure you will get a lot out of. If you do, I’d ask you to consider clicking the paypal button below. I don’t normally solicit for donations on this blog, we are all volunteers. But Alex has the opportunity of a lifetime, one I would love to have myself, the chance to go to the Clarion West writers workshop. Clarion has always been a breeding ground for the big names of the future, and I have no doubt that Alex will make the most of it. But, it does come with a number of costs, so every little bit helps.
Interrogating and Nurturing Story Ideas
The reason you always hear aspiring or would-be writers asking full-time professionals—or even part-timers, like myself—where their ideas come from, I think, has less to do with their perceived scarcity and more to do with the difficulty of choosing a useful idea from the bunch and then crafting a story out of it. It’s a strange process, and probably the most difficult part of writing fiction; at least for me, anyway.
I’ve always had a big appreciation for both discovery-writers, or “pantsers,” and anyone who writes a meticulous, detailed outline. My own process tends to fall somewhere right in the middle: Some of my best writing has come from months and months of contemplation and story-idea interrogation, but I’ve also written some good stuff completely off-the-cuff, almost unconscious of what I was doing.
Regardless of the method, I think consistency and quality are nice targets to aim for in this trade. They’re what we’d most like to attain as an end result.
We can’t always rely on stories to come to us in dreams, original and fully-formed. This is pretty rare. Also rare is the story that you plan and plan ahead of time, and then finally put down in words, to find that it’s especially good.
There’s a certain sweet spot you’d do well to discover; a place somewhere between overthinking a piece to death before you’ve even begun to put it in words, and the story that appears entirely out of nowhere while you’re sitting at the keyboard. The pros love to say it: “Ideas are easy.” And it’s pretty much true. They’re not scarce. Except that the real art is knowing which ideas might bear literary fruit—and which ones aren’t that useful after all.
I think there are a few nice tricks for weeding out the bad ideas, and at least as many for generating new, much betters ones. And because David McDonald is a really nice guy, and presumably so are the folks who read his blog in the land down under and everywhere else besides, I’d be happy to share a few with you today. Here goes:
1. Go try something new, something you’ve never done before. It doesn’t have to be dangerous or even uncomfortable. Just take the lid off your skull and toss in experiences, you know? Attend a concert . . . especially if it’s a style of music you don’t typically listen to. Go to an art gallery or mixed-martial-arts tournament, whatever. The culture you glimpse in this one single night could change your way of understanding a particular group of people forever. It could reshape your assumptions about art, and that’s almost always a good, interesting exercise.
2. Interrogate the hell out of your story ideas. Leave ’em begging for mercy—trembling in fear of the almighty author, whose keystrokes might very well burn them out of existence, should they not prove useful. Have the red pen ready, a journal open, and expect to be surprised. Not every fleeting what-if will turn out to be a goldmine. Not every dumb, obvious idea will be as lousy as you think it is; give them all a chance, see what they have to offer.
3. Indulge in playtime—but know when to call it quits and actually write. Toys aren’t just for kids. Nor are video games. If you like a game of Halo with your buddies every now and then? Go ahead and play, see where it takes you. Love building fortresses and starships out of a LEGOs as a child? Go pick up a brand-new set and put it together, remind yourself how step-by-step creation happens and how satisfying it can be; then tear it apart and come up with something uniquely yours. Role-play, if that’s your thing. Ignore the stuffy rules of adulthood and let yourself have some fun: Your writing will thank you for it later.
4. Going back to the interrogation concept: ask all the questions. Remember that fiction is a series of question-and-answer discussions taking place solely in the reader’s mind. The logic of plot depends entirely on the law of cause and effect, and the author’s willingness to give a healthy balance of expectations, surprises, and reasonable outcomes; too many twists and you risk alienating skeptical readers.
So don’t forget to ask the right questions. Whose story is this, really? Why this setting—this interplanetary society, or tribe of wizard outlaws? Just what’s up with that talking bird, anyway? Everything has to matter to some degree. A story is a quilt of scenes and images; it’s all right if you take chances and experiment with form, but every piece of the puzzle out to serve some artistic purpose. Know what that purpose is whenever possible.
5. Try taking your “brilliant idea” and applying it to worldbuilding. Sadly, some of the best ideas crumble at the slightest touch—or the moment sunlight hits them. They’re too fragile to do anything with; maybe because they’re too thin, maybe because they’re simply bad. A lot of great writers advise taking two seemingly unrelated ideas, concepts, or snippets of inspiration and striking them together to see what kind of spark they might ignite. I think there’s plenty of merit to this idea, and most of my published stories, or even my Writers of the Future finalist story, happened when I consciously tried to do this.
For example, an article on memory erasure in Wired was pretty interesting to me, but the concept didn’t necessarily lend itself to good storytelling without some secondary motivator to drive the protagonist toward such a procedure. By giving my main character a reason to forget something from his past, and then adding a “nootropic software” called Empyreal into the mix, to urge him on, Hutch’s choice to erase the memory of his deceased girlfriend began to feel inevitable.
And inevitability is a powerful illusion in fiction, by the way, if you can figure out how to maintain it. There’s nothing quite as tragic as the person who sees the train coming toward them and still somehow fails to get clear of the tracks in time.
6. Break out of your cozy genre-shell and let loose a bit. We’re all so hung up on genre. On storytelling conventions and longstanding narrative traditions. Don’t change point-of-view in the middle of a scene, they caution. Don’t use flowery language. Or a premise that’s been done to death. And definitely do not try to be like _____. Imitation ain’t a bad way to learn something new, you know. Rules are made to be broken, et cetera.
Try writing in a genre (or, hell, a messy tangle of several genres) you’re not all that comfortable with. Get familiar with something new; start reading urban fantasy, if you’re big on hard science fiction. Get acquainted with steampunk, if you think you’re such a horror guru. There’s always something to learn from the other side of the tracks. Try “slumming it” a bit. Hang out with the dark fantasy crowd, in their Gaiman Cathedral. (See you when you get here.) Fly into orbit and give nuts-’n’-bolts sf an earnest shot. If you fail . . . then, so what? Who cares? You probably learned something new anyway—even if by accident.
Remember: this whole thing’s supposed to be fun. Don’t lose sight of that fundamental truth. Keep chasing the horizon, and follow every hunch, every whim, so long as it keeps you productive. Try to make writing an exploration of the self, too, just as it is an exploration of the literature that came before you. Meditate. Reminisce about the past—old friends, bittersweet memories, and treasured totems. Try on that faded old t-shirt and go for a walk down a dead-end street. Preferably alone. See what you find there, and maybe do your best to write about it.
Alex Kane is an author, blogger, and critic whose work has appeared in Futuredaze: An Anthology of YA Science Fiction, Digital Science Fiction, and Foundation, among other places. He lives in Galesburg, Illinois, where he works in the retail banking industry, and was recently named a finalist in the international Writers of the Future contest.
He also writes a weekly column on film for Amazing Stories, and will be attending the 2013 Clarion West Writers Workshop this summer in Seattle.